Gardening Lessons for Growing Your Impact

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How to Cultivate Vibrant Evaluation Habits

How to cultivate vibrant evaluation habits

By Patricia (Patty) Montaño

I’m guilty of buying a cart full of beautiful plants without having fully conceptualized what landscape I would want in the end. I have come home with flowers with nowhere to plant them in my yard. I have inexpertly chosen plants without thought to hardiness regions. What does this have to do with evaluation?

Thinking about what kind of garden you want before you start planting is similar to planning an evaluation with key questions in mind. Start by mapping your program, thinking about what outcomes your program aims to accomplish, and then articulate your key evaluation questions before you jump to collecting data. Key evaluation questions help you specify why you want to do an evaluation and what you want to learn as a result of that evaluation. It is always tempting to think about methods first and the questions you want to directly ask program participants before pausing to think about the big picture and what you want to learn from your program and the participants you are serving. Program staff have good intentions when wanting to hear from participants when thinking “Let’s do a survey!” or “Let’s do interviews!” But we recommend taking a step back to ask yourself: what would you like to learn from participants? what parts of the program spark your curiosity? what keeps you up at night?

Like designing a garden, evaluation planning requires an awareness of its feasibility in terms of resources and an alignment with priorities. After gardening for many years, I’m still getting better at distinguishing between the garden I desire versus one I can afford. I leave my visits to botanic gardens inspired to create new spaces for flower beds, build water features, and dig trenches for a brick border. I also dream about the magnificent trees I could plant! But the price tag for such projects is steep. Do I need a Bosnian pine for my yard? Probably not. A less expensive, and just as beautiful tree would do. I frequently have to check my eagerness and reflect on what type of garden would please me and align with my budget, resources, and the labor I am willing to put into shoveling pounds of dirt. I think about the garden I need now and the one I want in the future. Then I plan steps to build toward the goal of the beautiful garden I desire.

As with planning a garden, visualize the evaluation that you want and that would be most useful for your organization’s program needs, learning, and resources. A useful evaluation takes an investment of time, money, and staff commitment, and when the investment is adequate, the evaluation can yield insights that improve programs and services that, in turn, can transform communities. If you have lots of ideas and lots of wants for an evaluation, narrow down to what you really need to know about your programs now, and prepare to put resources to do more evaluation in the future. Meanwhile, you can build a foundation of evaluative thinking, do smaller studies, and build toward that larger study with time. 

Related to resources, an evaluation can be scaled to fit different needs and questions about a program, like starting a garden from seed or planting mature plants from a garden center or both. Resource- and time-intensive evaluations, like longitudinal studies and impact evaluations, can be appropriate choices depending on the key evaluation question. Other options can work just as well and provide you with the information you need to understand participant experiences in your programs. Depending on your question, you might want to use quantitative or qualitative methods or a mix of both. You might want to work in phases, doing smaller and less resource-intensive studies in succession. The key is to pick an evaluation and study design that fits your key evaluation questions, your budget, and your timeline. Your key evaluation questions declare the direction of what you want to learn to make an evaluation worthwhile. Before deciding to use one method over another, or a large versus a small sample size, consider what method would best answer your questions. 

Learning from and valuing participants’ voices and thoughts, which they have generously taken the time to share, is at the core of evaluation.

Just like anyone can become a gardener, at Vantage we take the radical view that everyone can be taught evaluation. We are all learners. Just because a person might not have a green thumb now, doesn’t mean she or he can’t become a successful gardener in the future. Learning about evaluation, and becoming better at it, takes time. Find resources, build your knowledge, attend professional development sessions, learn by doing, and reach out to local experts who can help. Invest in building evaluation capacity within yourself, your team, and your organization, and build a culture of learning and reflective practice. Learning from and valuing participants’ voices and thoughts, which they have generously taken the time to share, is at the core of evaluation. Remember, evaluation is a thought process that any nonprofit staff can engage in to make their work more effective. 

As in my work, I have short-term and long-term projects in my garden. This season I am enjoying the snap peas, sunflowers, and borage I started from seed, but they won’t last longer than early autumn. In the meantime, I can observe and understand what grows, learn from my failures, explore the options for what plants can thrive, and be thoughtful about planning for the future; all lessons I take with me to work.


Get more tips for growing your impact in The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot: A New Approach Every Staff Member Can Understand, a step-by-step guide for cultivating vibrant evaluation habits in your organization.


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Patricia (Patty) Montaño, MS, MA | Evaluator

Patty deploys evaluation to elevate participant voices by methodically weaving together different perspectives and data sources.