Evaluating Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) efforts

Wittgenstein once said that the world is the totality of facts, not of things. But I think the world is the totality of stories, not of things or facts.

Whether that’s a fact or not, I don’t know. I do know there are two ways of knowing things; one is through studies, the other is through stories.

As agencies increasingly put resources into ABCD they will want facts and figures to show return on investment and to know they are making a difference. Studies often provide us with such data while stories provide local people with more possibility and inspiration.

When evaluating ABCD – what is fundamentally a citizen led place based process – it seems reasonable to ask that that be done in a way that enhances the place and the people in it.

A person who truly understood this distinction between studies and stories was the poet Maya Angelou, she reminds us:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

How many times have we evaluated community initiatives and in doing so left people feeling judged, misunderstood or unheard?

Stories are felt. Great stories work through all our senses to lure us beyond traditional boundaries toward new potential. That is why people will never care about what we know, until they know that we care.

Sensitively captured case studies can marry stories and facts, and that happens best through participatory and emancipatory evaluation. Which is probably better bagged as participatory learning.

Local people know outside helpers care when we learn with them, not when we study them, and that happens best when we invite people to share their stories of coming together to generate new possibilities, using what they have to secure what they want.

All that is to say when it comes to evaluating community building processes as outsiders, let’s figure out how:

1.  we can listen to the local stories

2.  support local people to be the owners, narrators and curators of their own stories

3.  explore how local people can connect with each other, their ecology, economy and institutions to create a community of their choosing that embodies their unfolding story.

This means a move away from top down summative and formative evaluation processes, towards a developmental and emancipatory learning process. It means admitting many evaluation processes are an attempt to command and control outcomes and people.

Let’s relocate the authority for learning into the hands of the people for whom the learning matters most, and learn to lead by stepping back while still caring.

Cormac Russell

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  • Tom Dewar

    This is terrific, Cormac. Right on the mark! Tom

    June 6, 2014 at 9:16 pm
  • Roddy Wright

    Powerful and important points around true evaluation and social impact made here Cormac. Thanks for sharing. Thought provoking.

    September 4, 2014 at 9:45 pm
  • Denise K. Ramon

    This seems as if it could align with Michael Patton’s Developmental Evaluation

    October 14, 2014 at 5:28 pm
  • I recommend Yoland Wadsworth Building in Research and Evaluation, Human Inquiry for Living Systems, Allen and Unwin 2011. She has a strong emphasis on participation and systems thinking.

    March 29, 2015 at 10:31 am
  • nurturedevelopment

    Hi Cathy,
    Many thanks, that’s really helpful.

    March 30, 2015 at 8:05 am
  • Guy Patterson

    Evaluation is a tricky business, as it entails understanding and judgement, which is to say it involves having the knowledge needed to make meaningful value judgements. Personally I would happily dispense with 90% of the theories that inform evaluation, dispensing with questionnaires etc (which tend to only further establish the facts on the ground as a rule, and take up everyone’s time in the process) and rely on what people tell me. You listen and you assess, and then you listen and then you re-assess, and so on, until you get it. An over-simplification maybe, but that’s how I see it and is why I like the term ‘appreciative inquiry’..)

    September 27, 2015 at 5:40 pm
  • Beautifully put. Thank you for this, Cormac!

    January 15, 2018 at 5:22 pm

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