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Program Evaluation and Narrative

June 07, 2010

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Related posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.)

Circle_hands I had an inspiring meeting last week with a colleague who specializes in program evaluation. Part of that meeting was devoted to exploring how narrative can work alongside evaluation to determine organizational strategy.

During our conversation, the following things became clear (funders take note!):

• Theories of Change should be accompanied by Stories of Change! Not simply an expository description of your Theory of Change, but an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end, conflict, and resolution. What is the future aspirational end toward which your organization is working? Where, and in what ways, have you already told that story?

• Narrative evaluation can support more seemingly rigorous methods of quantitative evaluation. In fact, narrative evaluation can uncover truths that may be difficult to surface in other ways.

• Measures of evaluation should be meaningful and understood by both grantees and funders. Indeed, by asking grantees to share stories about what success would look like, funders can better gauge whether grantees fully understand the proposed metrics. In other words, agreement on language does not necessarily mean agreement.

• Facilitating the sharing of stories among grantees is a way to create connections, transmit knowledge, reduce competitiveness (among grantees), and may contribute to movement building. If you feel it's appropriate, ask your grantees to share stories about their experiences wielding power and influence: "Tell us about a time your organization had a seat at the table. What happened? Who was there? How did you feel?" Or, "Tell us about a time your organization was prevented from having a seat at the table. What happened?"

• Grantees must be provided with a safe context in which they can share stories about their failures and unresolved challenges, as well as their successes. Self-reflection is critical to program and organizational development. Space can be provided for sense-making activities that explore the characters, challenges, settings, and other elements that contribute to success or failure. What are the emergent themes?

• Story is a non-threatening, democratic tool for clarifying uncertainty. Significant change is usually predicated by daunting complexity. Stories can make sense of that complexity and assure that important details do not fall through the cracks.

• Encouraging the sharing of stories among program officers often leads to insight, innovation, and more effective targeting of resources. And helping program officers become better listeners -- and better story sharers themselves -- is likely to result in more story sharing by grantees. True narrative leadership means prompting stories through the sharing of stories; asking for stories and then fully listening to the stories that are shared; recognizing and exploring commonalities among the stories one hears; and acting on the knowledge gleaned through those stories.

• Evaluators should spend more time thinking about how they can present their findings through narrative: Do their findings lend themselves to a presentation with a clear beginning, middle, and end? Why did the organization decide to measure the things it did? What were the barriers it encountered along the way? Was it successful? What, if anything, has changed as a result of gathering that data?

• When approached thoughtfully, the knowledge gleaned through story sharing and narrative analysis can contribute considerable value to the strategic focus and programmatic effectiveness of any organization.

As I said, it was a productive meeting! Is your organization applying narrative to sharpen its strategic focus and effectiveness? Have your program officers received training in the elicitation and preservation of stories? Do you encourage your grantees to share qualitative as well as quantitative data? What challenges are you encountering? I'd love to hear from you. Use the comments section below....

-- Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Jack Ricchiuto  |   June 09, 2010 at 09:36 AM

This is incredibly important, but of course I am biased because this is exactly what i propose in my last book, The Stories that Connect Us.

Posted by drew harris  |   June 09, 2010 at 04:58 PM

Great piece. How do we tell a story for which the ending has not yet been written? Is there value in leaving the audience hanging, like the season finale of Lost?? Or, do all of our stories need complete resolution?

Posted by Thaler  |   June 11, 2010 at 05:00 PM

Drew, while I cannot comment on the value the viewer may find in the finale of Lost, I can say that, most definitely, many narratives about our lives and the world do not have simple resolutions.

The brilliant narrative expert David Boje commented on my earlier post, What, Why and How Story Matters, about story resolution or the lack thereof. David says, "I like to look at storytelling as an intra-play of narratives (past), living story webs (present) and antenarratives about the future field of possibilities.

"So sometime a living story web, is full of relationship, lots of emergence, and stuff happening we don't have an ending for, and maybe no beginning sorted out."

You can read David's full commentary here: http://pndblog.typepad.com/pndblog/2010/03/what-why-and-how-story-matters.html?

My goal, Drew, is to assist smart leaders and their organizations in finding and sharing their stories. So, although the larger, what I call meta-narrative may not yet have a clear beginning or a tidy resolution, the communication of the narrative will have a clear construction, with a beginning, middle and an end. That is the story that can be shared.

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