Evaluation Workshop with Rebekah Levin


No word provokes fear more promptly among non-profit organizations, who depend on positive assessments of their work to keep receiving grants, contracts and other crucial resources. But evaluation can help grassroots leaders do their work and communicate effectively with funders as well as potential supporters, according to Rebekah Levin, director of evaluation and learning with the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which makes about $80 million in grants each year.

On March 29, Rebekah led a virtual workshop for an international roster of Chicago Peace Fellows and alumni of GATHER, the Goldin Institute’s on-line capacity-building curriculum. With 3 decades of experience as an evaluator, an academic and a political activist herself, she has become a self-described “proselytizer for evaluation,” especially when it is practiced in a way that empowers community leaders rather than penalizes them for not fitting into narrow categories and pre-ordained expectations.

[quote]“Though there are horrible things that have come from evaluation, there is fantastic stuff that has come from it, and when you don’t use it, I tell people in activism that it’s like leaving money on the table. It is a very powerful tool and you should have it working for you.” -- Rebekah Levin [/quote]


Philanthropies, government agencies and other funders demand data and have a strong preference for numbers and quantitative information over qualitative information and anecdotes, while generally failing to account for their own biases and assumptions. People who work for non-profit groups, in turn, frequently find evaluation to be a burden or a problem, and begin their evaluation process by asking “What data can I get?”

However, Rebekah averred that grassroots organizations can take control of the process by defining the questions that will give them information to help them do their work more effectively.

“With evaluation, you are gathering data to answer a question for which you don’t have the answer,” she said.

[quote]“Gather your data to answer questions, and when you have the answers to those questions, use those data to teach your supporters or people you want to support your organization about the power of what you’re doing.”[/quote]

The Chicago Peace Fellows and the alumni of GATHER’s inaugural class operate grassroots operations in a wide variety of circumstances, but all have extensive experience with evaluation, and they were brimming with questions for Rebekah. Eyob Yishak, a peace program coordinator from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said his program spent a year coming up with evaluation parameters and assigned one person with monitoring responsibility, but after hearing Rebekah speak, he wondered aloud if evaluation should be a team effort.

Speaking as an evaluator herself, Rebekah agreed with Eyob’s instinct, and encouraged those with evaluation duties to fully involve those who were doing the work as well as those being studied throughout the process.

“It’s a humbling thing,” Rebekah confessed. “We have to let go of our power and our roles.”

Cynthia Austin, who works with survivors of sexual violence from her base in San Diego, USA, said her team produces a lot of data about age and demographics, especially during their intake of women leaving the sex industry, but aren’t always sure what they can do with it.

Rebekah encouraged Cynthia’s team and other groups in that situation to reflect on their work, introspectively consider what information they really need, and improve their efforts by adding additional data to those which do prove useful.

Diana Alaroker, the accounts manager and social worker at Youth Leaders for Reconciliation, Education and Development in Gulu, Uganda, noted that many international agencies paid people for interviews, which risked the integrity of the research.

[quote]“When you give them the money, they give you the answers you want to know, not what they have really experienced.” -- Diana Alaroker[/quote]

The phenomenon Diana described was widespread, Rebekah said, recommending that the subjects of the interviews be fully involved so that they understand the potential benefits of accurate research to them and their community.

“Bringing people into the power circle can really have an effect,” she added. “You can use this as a tool to make the evaluation stronger.”

Peace Fellow Robert Biekman, senior pastor of Maple Park United Methodist Church and urban ministry coordinator of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, wanted to know how small organizations could handle the cost of evaluation.

Rebekah answered that funders had an “ethical responsibility” to pay for the costs of any required data collection, but she always tried to match the methodology to the available resources:

[quote]“To me, it goes back to if the question is really important, what will it worth to you to get it answered?”

Nevertheless, Rebekah quickly added that evaluation doesn’t have to cost extra money and can be done less formally. Basic evaluation can be performed even if organizations sit together at regular intervals, talk about what they’re experiencing, take notes, and then analyze those records.

“Like anything in your life, you should be asking questions and looking for information that helps you learn and move forward,” she said.

Frank Latin, founding executive director of the Westside Media Project, said his organization already receives funding from the McCormick Foundation and others, but because they were concentrated in schools in one Chicago neighborhood, felt that he needed to use evaluation to explain he was having a significant impact.

Rebekah urged Frank to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, and use stories to tie them together and let funders understand the breadth as well as the depth of his organization’s work.

Jamila Trimuel, founder of Ladies of Virtue, an award-winning mentoring and leadership program on Chicago’s South Side, wanted to know how to approach universities to do evaluation.

Rebekah cautioned that while working with academics is appealing because they are thorough, professional and often do not charge, non-profits should make sure that their academic partners’ agendas align with theirs.

“Some of the university research is very good, but some of it is not benefiting communities,” she explained.

The online workshop ended with applause from the Fellows in Chicago and around the world and a commitment to continue the conversation about how evaluation can help us improve our efforts towards community driven social change.

Goldin Institute Successfully Returns to Uganda

This June, Institute co-founders Diane Goldin and Travis Rejman returned to Uganda to participate in our first ever cross-continental Child Soldier Reintegration and Reconciliation Training Workshops. Because of her work in developing and using the ESPERE methodology in her native Colombia, our Global Associate Lissette Mateus Roa was the natural candidate to lead the training in Uganda.

Before bringing this project to Africa, Lissette worked closely with our partner and her advisor, Fr. Leonel Narvaez designing and successfully testing the ESPERE methodology to engage local communities by using schools as centers for reconciliation for former child soldiers in the region. We highlighted their work and what this looks like on-the-ground in Colombia in previous reports.

To best adapt the training to our colleagues in Africa, an intensive eight-day workshop was conducted wherein participants learned about the key concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation, and obtained tools to carry these ideas forward within their communities.

In all, Lissette successfully trained 16 individuals made up of child combatants, teachers, crisis counselors and community members. These participants represented five different regions of Northern Africa and because each certified trainer committed to individual action plans upon completion, the outreach within their communities will impact many more potential trainees. In short, Lissette has left a "teaching tree" model in place that we hope to see expand and carry forth the ESPERE program within the region.


[quote]My expectations were different than the reality in Africa, normally the mass media shows to the world the bad things about Africa, I was expecting some kind of hungry people, in a dusty or dirty environment, waiting for water and food. But, I realized (once there and on the ground) that they have needs, but also they have so many good things that the mass media doesn't talk about: they are a happy and generous people, (there are) amazing buildings for education, they are bilinguals and have spoken their own language and English since they were kids, they have some kind of sense of community that we have lost in our developed societies, and is highly necessary for healing our societies – they are ahead of the game in that sense. I realized we have as many things to learn from them as they can learn from us. I'm not saying everything is perfect, I'm just saying that not everything is bad, and there is great hope for the future because of the people. Moreover, I was expecting a very rough place but it was a beautiful place for the workshop."[/quote]

- Global Associate and program facilitator, Lissette Mateus Roa


Lissette's excerpted comments above are from a conversation with her upon her return from Africa. The full interview can be found here.

In coming months, we look forward to sharing the results of the action plans established by the trainees at Lissette's ESPERE workshop, as they carry out the mission to bring societal changes to their own communities in Northern Africa. If you would like to become more involved supporting this project, find out how you can help.

[slide] [img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_1.jpg"]Co-founder's Diane Goldin and Travis Rejman meet with Everest Okwonga, the Principal at St. Janani Luwum Vocational Training Centre[/img] [img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_2.jpg"]Co-founder's Diane Goldin and Travis Rejman meet with students at a trade school for former child combatants in Gulu[/img] [img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_3.jpg"]Co-founder Diane Goldin meets with students in a Gulu classroom during the Institute's June2014 trip to the region to take part on child soldier reintegration efforts[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_4.jpg"]Participants of a workshop conducted by Global Associate Lissette Mateus Roa take part in one of the exercises teaching 'forgiveness'[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_5.jpg"] Global Associate Lissette Mateus Roa (bottom left) and her group of ESPERE students. Also included is friend and colleague and Associate emeritus Dr. Dorcas Kiplagat (standing 5th from right)[/img] [img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_6.jpg"]Participants of the ESPERE workshop during a training session[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_7.jpg"]Global Associate Lissette Mateus Roa (standing) leads a training session in Gulu[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_9.jpg"]Global Associate Lissette Mateus conducts an exercise with participants of the ESPERE workshop in June 2014[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_15.jpg"]Global Associate Lissette Mateus (sitting foreground) leads her ESPERE training group[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_28.jpg"]Co-founder Diane Goldin meets with students at the St Janani Vocational School. The School is made up of mostly former child soldiers learning new skills (like carpentry in this classroom) to rejoin civilian life.[/img] [img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_27.jpg"]The workshop attended by former child combatants[/img][img path="images/slideshow/full/uganda2014_34.jpg"]Institute co-founder Diane Goldin meets with Ajok Dorah - a psychologist specializing in giving counsel to former child combatants returning to their communities.[/img][/slide]