By Shelby Corley
Co-founder, Three Hive Consulting and Eval Academy
This blog is part of the Eval4Action ‘Walk the Talk’ blog series. The series details six nominated actions for influential evaluation that were contributed during the Walk the Talk drive, held in October 2021. These lessons and reflections inspire greater action for influential evaluation in the Decade of Action.
It was a pleasure to be invited to contribute a blog about using evaluation as an accelerator to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) “This blog will write itself,” I told myself smugly.
But then I thought more about the topic and came to a somewhat guilty admission: I never reference the SDGs in my work as an evaluator. My work is based almost entirely in western Canada, and my clients rarely, if ever, connect their efforts to the SDGs. They do, however, set goals and work to end poverty, improve health and well-being, and advance gender equality in the regions they serve. My thoughts here are based on my work as an evaluation consultant and as an evaluation capacity builder and are grounded in the experiences that I have had in my career and life to this point.
I have arrived in evaluation as a career unintentionally, but appropriately. When I see governments and organizations sharing their goals, I cannot help but question – how will you know when you get there? Where did that goal come from? Are those strategies really leading you to achieve that goal? To me, these are obvious questions to ask, but I am regularly surprised at how infrequently or poorly they are addressed.
What if we didn’t evaluate?
When I kick off a new evaluation project or provide evaluation training, I like to explore the value of evaluation by asking people to imagine it didn’t exist. Imagine you didn’t reflect on progress and process. Imagine you had no data to guide decisions. How would you know if you’re doing the right things, the right way, at the right time, with the right people? You simply wouldn’t. Your decisions would be made on best guesses and recent memories of standout experiences. Without evaluation, we obviously would not know if we have achieved the SDGs, or if we are making progress toward them.
Evaluation encourages reflection
Evaluation makes us consider our current state and ask ourselves if that’s what we want. If we then want to do better, evaluation helps us understand how. By asking questions about quality, safety, efficiency, and equity, it helps us identify high-value activities that advance our goals, or see where we may be missing opportunities to do better. When we evaluate, we can learn from our history and better position ourselves to create the future we want for the world.
It is incumbent on evaluators to help those around us understand the great value that comes with systematic reflection on progress and process. Evaluators need to both talk the talk and walk the talk.
Problem: Evaluation isn’t well understood
Evaluators will know what it’s like to have a new acquaintance not understand your job. Many people have experienced evaluation as an onerous task, if at all. Our field is not well known, and our value is not well understood. It is incumbent on evaluators to help those around us understand the great value that comes with systematic reflection on progress and process. Evaluators need to both talk the talk and walk the talk. We need strong voices to amplify our message across all levels of systems, all around the world.
Opportunity: Evaluation can be more accessible
Sometimes, evaluation is very hard. But many aspects of evaluation are relatively straightforward. The basic principle of why we evaluate – to learn and do better — is easy to understand. And many of the tasks involved are entirely doable by non-evaluators.
Evaluation can’t be left solely to expensive consultants. Organizational leaders, programme managers and operational staff need to understand the value of evaluation and be empowered to contribute. Evaluation training, once a niche offering, is now easily accessible for those with internet access. Entry-level information about evaluation is abundant, including on our Eval Academy website. It has never been easier for anyone to learn about evaluation and integrate simple practices into their work.
So how can evaluation help accelerate the SDGs?
Evaluation can help accelerate the SDGs by being everywhere, all the time. Evaluation needs to grow and be prioritized. Evaluation tasks need to be embedded in everyone’s roles and throughout the entire life of a programme. The principles of reflection and improvement that are so fundamental to evaluation can permeate the world and accelerate the SDGs when evaluation tasks are understood and undertaken by everyone who designs and runs programmes and when policy makers understand the imperative to evaluate the world their policies create.
For those of us whose work does not explicitly reference the SDGs, we can take opportunities to point out how the initiatives we support are aligned with the SDGs during our planning discussion and in our reporting. Remember that evaluators have a unique role in which we are often able to encourage our clients to reflect, to share new ideas and suggest different ways of thinking about initiatives—why not help our clients to see how their work relates to the SDGs?
Calls to action
Policy and grant makers: prioritize effective evaluation and strategic learning. Build in meaningful evaluation requirements so you know if your efforts are helping to achieve goals.
Managers: train your staff. Empower them to learn about evaluation and integrate it into their work, even through small actions.
Evaluators: talk about evaluation. Be great at what you do and demonstrate the value of your craft. Help your friends and colleagues learn about evaluation.
How I Walk the Talk
Having witnessed the need to grow awareness of evaluation and capacity to undertake it, my partner and I founded Eval Academy. We believe that evaluation has the power to uncover insights, change behaviours and transform how organizations and systems work – so everyone should evaluate! At Eval Academy, our team shares our experience of evaluation in relatively plain language, offering an introduction to evaluation for those who are unfamiliar with it, and more intermediate-level explorations of evaluation topics for those with some experience. With trustworthy articles and useful resource downloads, we are providing thousands of monthly visitors a simple way to learn about evaluation and integrate it into their work. In this way, Eval Academy is empowering people to accelerate their progress toward their goals – SDGs included.
Shelby Corley is CEO of Three Hive Consulting, an evaluation consultancy, and Eval Academy, a website dedicated to building evaluation capacity. Shelby leads a small team of skilled and thoughtful evaluators who serve Canadian clients in the non-profit and healthcare sectors. Her evaluation and research experience includes primary health care, mental health and addictions, health innovation and virtual care, children and youth, housing and homelessness, and immigrant and refugee-serving organizations. Follow Sheldy on Twitter and