The Value of Communities of Practice

After I returned from the American Evaluation Association conference in Minneapolis in November of 2019, I was so energized because it was an excellent way to experience the “fresh edge” of the evaluation field. Alongside more established and traditional workshops (e.g. quantitative methodologies), there were workshops and presentations about new ideas and ways of working: feminist issues in evaluation, ways of respecting LGBTQ* voices, data visualization techniques, new thoughts on inclusive randomized control trials, boundary pushing on qualitative research methods, and – of course – lots of discussion about social impact measurement. It was incredibly inspiring, not just because of the content but because of the way that the community grew over the course of just one week. The community didn’t grow in numbers, but rather the way sourdough starter grows from being fed!

The social impact measurement folks had some of the most dynamic energy. It was clear that they were moving forward, brewing new ideas, and enjoying the momentum that social impact/social value is experiencing around the globe. In part, the increased visibility for social impact measurement comes through the growing attention being paid to social service programming by impact investors who want to “do good” as well as “do well” with their investments. That was definitely a strong thread throughout the conference and it is clear that there is room for growth and innovation. However, there was an equally strong contingent of people who wanted to look at social impact/social value in its own right. Some of these evaluators and consultants were looking at the social impact of international development projects, while others were trying to describe the social value of museum programs, STEM-for-girls programs, arts programs for LGBTQ* youth, or various types of health initiatives. Policy-makers, government representatives, consultants, educators and trainers, evaluators, program planners, designers, researchers, data geeks, software developers and investors … we all grappled with how to do this evaluation work in a more successful way.

Bringing these different and global perspectives together at one conference was invaluable. It was invigorating, affirming, and eye-opening. We heard voices we otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to and heard about programs offered in very different circumstances from our own. We tested existing ideas and generated new ones in ways that simply aren’t possible in the confines of familiar territory. We were exposed to new ways of doing things and saw the latest in the technologies that support our field. Now we have a year to work on what we learned before the next “gathering of the clan” in Portland next October.

In the meantime, where do we connect in Canada? The Common Approach to Impact Measurement may provide us with an intellectual hub that we can gather around. It’s flexible enough that people can still work in their own way, but there is a guiding framework that articulates what are considered the “essential practices”, based both on international research and on local feedback. As we begin to meet in the Zoom universe as art of the Common Foundations Champion project, I hope that either the Canadian Evaluation Society or Social Value Canada will express interest in providing a longer term connecting point for the impact measurement community. Then we too can have invigorating conversations and explore the “fresh edge” of impact measurement as it is carried out in the social purpose sector.

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