Developmental Evaluation: Making Sense of the Muck

By Brittney Neunzig
Coordinator, Edmonton Chamber, The Tetra Society of North America

I have always been a big picture kind of thinker. The type that sees the forest instead of the trees so to speak. So naturally when I took on the task of launching and managing a local branch of a national non-profit organization, my mind jumped right to the part where I would have it all figured out. Enter a little thing called reality and I find myself four years later stuck in ideological muck trying to figure out which way to go. You see I hadn’t realized at the time that I was entering the “Social Innovation” zone; a complex and uncharted landscape with no map and certainly no GPS. This was an “enter at your own risk” kind of territory, except no one bothered to warn me before I stumbled in…and then got lost.

I quickly realized that running a non-profit geared at social change feels a lot like trying to eat soup with a fork. The traditional and perfectly adequate tools (i.e. the fork) that work so well in conventional business just don’t work the same for some non-profits (i.e. the soup).

It was about this time that the invitation for Eval Lab came to my inbox. Using terms like strategic learning and evaluative thinking the invitation seemed to promise a better way to navigate the complexity of the social impact I desired to make.  At the time I was in year two of a strategic plan that just wasn’t working so I was excited to jump in and learn something new.

At the very first class we learned about the concept of developmental evaluation. This new concept seemed so abstract to me at first but the more I learn about it I realize it is simply a process meant to help navigate unknown territory, just like the ideological muck in which I find myself.

Traditional types of evaluation such as formative or summative are meant to evaluate established initiatives, whereas developmental evaluation is meant to provide feedback and facilitate decisions and strategies in settings where new initiatives or programs need to be developed, or when programs or initiatives have changed contexts.

Just like Christopher Columbus embarking on a journey to discover new land, DE recognizes uncertainty. It requires real time evaluation and changes in course when necessary along the way. And just like Christopher Columbus’ journey, the map isn’t known at the beginning of the journey but drawn at the end.

The concepts we have learned each consecutive session at Eval Lab including strategic learning, evaluative thinking, and theories of change are like tools in the toolbox that help bring developmental evaluation to life. Like Christopher Columbus’s compass and sails, these tools will help guide the journey.

Since joining Eval Lab the direction of my small non-profit has drastically changed. I have a much clearer focus on the impact I want to make and while the path there is still uncertain, I know the future is bright because while I’m in the muck I am getting busy learning instead of just getting dirty!