Evaluators as Change Agents: Evaluating Community Coalitions

Hi everyone!

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to speak with the West Michigan Evaluators Network (WMEN) about evaluating coalitions and collaboratives. I started from the framework and opinion that evaluators can and should be social change agents. After all, my company’s (Community Evaluation Solutions) tagline is Partnering for Social Change. I believe that evaluators are not (just) objective observers of the programs and communities we serve. Rather, I believe that coalitions can be a powerful catalyst for change, and that evaluators can help them achieve their goals.

As evaluators we have the great opportunity to work for social change by partnering with community coalitions.

What are coalitions and collaboratives? (Note, I use these terms interchangeably).

So just why are coalitions so important? Coalitions at their best:

Coalitions are a formal arrangement for cooperation and collaboration between sectors of the community, in which each group retains its identity but agree to work together toward a common goal.

– Fran Butterfoss

  • Engage community members from all sectors, but most especially those who are most affected by the public health and social problem of interest (those with low income, are marginalized in some way, and people of color).
  • Bring together fragmented systems and help maximize resources;
  • Build community capacity for solving community problems;
  • Increase civic engagement; and
  • Organize community members, help them leverage their collective voice and maximize political power to help create long-term, systemic change.

Coalitions are MOST effective when they address community-wide problems using a public health approach to address systems level change.

Coalitions, while they have their strengths and benefits, are fraught with challenges. So, a word of warning – coalitions involve people and those people represent their organizations and themselves. They may have a hard time setting aside their perspectives for the good of the coalition or community. Structure (by-laws, committees, effective meetings) are important, but many coalition members want to skip this important work. Conflict is inevitable, and dare I say, necessary? Perhaps the most important challenge is coalition leadership. A good leader is a must for all effective coalitions. An effective coalition leader can inspire the group, bring them all together, and engage them in the work.

Coalition Development

Just like any other group, coalitions cycle in and out of stages and evaluation questions should change to reflect these stages.

During the formation stage, be mindful of the community’s context and history. Ask who is engaged and maybe more importantly, who is not engaged? Are by-laws and committees established? Are meetings effective? Does the coalition know what collaboration even is? I once worked with a new coalition and every time something needed to be done, they whipped their heads around to look at the coalition director. In that situation, we had to do some training on what it really means to collaborate before we could move on to the work.

During the maintenance stage, everyone has settled into their roles (hopefully) and fences mended (again, hopefully). Evaluation questions at this stage may include, are members satisfied with how the coalition is functioning? Are meetings effective? Is membership (still) representative of the community? Is implementation effective? Is there evidence of short-term outcomes?

Finally, after some years, the coalition reaches some level of stability. Evaluation questions at the institutionalization stage should include a focus on long-term outcomes and sustainability. Has the coalition grown in its organizational, leadership and evaluation capacity? As the coalition cycles through these stages, the evaluation plan should as well.

At times you may be called on to be a trainer, a strategy or program developer, a conflict manager and sometimes an evaluator. I promise, evaluating coalitions is often rewarding and most certainly, never boring.

Send me an email to connect with me to talk all things evaluation and community coalitions at aprice@communityevaluationsolutions.com and let me know if you want me to add you to my contact list. I am on Twitter at @annwprice or on FaceBook at @CommunityEvaluationSolutions.