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The animal farm and a postal worker: A fable about evaluators and evaluation champions
by Alison Rogers
Once upon a time there was a diverse range of animals working hard to run a productive farm. Among the committed and dedicated team there were five dogs. In addition to retrieving, herding, and sniffing for wild produce, their role was to guard the premises. The dogs were friendly to the milkmaid and grocer, but for some reason, they growled and barked at the postal worker.
One day, when the postal worker was due to deliver mail, four of the dogs were distracted by a commotion on the other side of the farm. No one was watching the mailbox except for the dog known as Champ. He stayed by the gate, as he was meant to do. He observed the postal worker walk closer, and when she made no attempt to enter the premises, he stayed quietly vigilant and let her get on with her job. Champ even started wagging his tail.
The next time the postal worker visited she maintained a good distance, was quiet, and kept calm. Four of the dogs got bored but Champ stayed, and this time, wagged his tail and allowed the postal worker to pat him on the head. “What’s your job on the farm, Champ?” asked the postal worker. “I have to retrieve the birds,” replied Champ. He was also interested in hearing about where the postal worker had come from.
The postal worker listened closely to what Champ had to say about his work, and on the following visit, brought him a magazine with tips for improving retrieval skills. Champ thought the magazine was extremely useful and showed it to the other dogs. “Oh wow,” they exclaimed, “I wonder if there is a magazine on sniffing?” Champ replied, “Well, I can always ask my friend the postal worker!”
The dogs did not react so angrily during the next visit. Instead they watched how Champ interacted with the postal worker. They were wary and reluctant, but when she brought back a magazine on sniffing, the dogs stopped barking at her.
From then on, the postal worker had no trouble dropping off mail. The dogs were keen to chat about their interests and work challenges. She did not understand everything they said, but Champ was nearby to help interpret. He eventually let her through the gate for a tour and introduced her to all the other animals.
Champ explained that the animals were on this farm because they all valued sustainability and were working towards a vision for a productive organic farm. He explained their different skills and specific issues. Champ had lots of information about the dynamics between the farm animals and what had caused some of the arguments in the past. Based on this information, the postal worker was able to start bringing tools that helped the animals understand what was changing on the farm and assess whether they were making progress towards their goal.
The animals used the tools to collect stories of success and share new ideas, both of which inspired them to improve their practices. They even shared moist fruit cake and drank cups of strong steaming tea while they were at it. The postal worker found opportunities for Champ and other volunteers to share with neighbouring farms their achievements, challenges, and improvements. The animals enjoyed the experience and opportunity to help other farms with their goals.
The conversations between Champ and the postal worker occurred over many years, and they continued to be colleagues and friends. Over time, the animal farm was able to demonstrate the degree of increase in productivity and sustainability. The relationship between Champ and the postal worker facilitated the use of the postal worker’s suggestions, tools, and ways of working and opportunities to learn from animals on other farms.
My name is Alison Rogers, a PhD candidate with the Centre for Program Evaluation at the University of Melbourne conducting research with people who champion evaluation in Australian non-profit organisations. The purpose of my research is to understand more about evaluation champions and examine their characteristics, motivations, and how they promote and embed evaluation in their organisations. The fable above is illustrative of anecdotes I heard from evaluators when they talked about evaluation champions on their teams and the importance of these individuals to assist in generating momentum for change.
In my literature review, initially I found numerous articles that used the term evaluation champion when calling for the identification and engagement of enthusiastic non-evaluators as a consideration in the implementation of an evaluation initiative. I then looked at studies that specifically focused on these champions and combined this research with the literature on evaluative thinking, internal evaluation, evaluation capacity building, champions from other sectors, and theories about evaluation use and social interdependence to develop a definition of an evaluation champion.
The proposed extended definition of an evaluation champion based on the literature suggests they are employees who practise reflection and critical thinking, and promote evaluation among colleagues. They may undertake these activities:
- Advocate for support and resources
- Motivate others, provide energy, interest, and enthusiasm
- Provide or access tools, resources, networks, and expertise
- Help others to apply evaluative thinking, use evaluation findings and create opportunities for reflection
- Assist, train, mentor, support evaluation while considering different perspectives and encouraging others to contribute
- Consider how evaluation can be strategically promoted and used for organisational change
- Ask and encourage others to ask critical questions and initiate discussions and debates
- Develop engaging ways to explain details and develop common visions.
Although this extended definition captures the essential elements, specific details around what evaluation champions do in practice are lacking in the literature. Writing this fable helped me clarify exactly what I was trying to find out in my research. I wanted to know what the characteristics were that set Champ apart from the other dogs. He showed curiosity and openness when he wanted to know more about the postal worker, and a friendly disposition in wagging his tail. Why was he willing to let the postal worker in the gate? What did Champ do to promote what the postal worker was offering to other animals? Did Champ play an enabling role by facilitating the relationships, assisting with knowledge exchange, and creating a supportive environment? And did the long-term interaction with the postal worker assist with facilitating her tools to be adopted by animals across the farm?
While my early research through the literature review surfaced some of the activities of someone like Champ, my investigation into questions about the characteristics, motivations, and ways of promoting and embedding evaluation continues. A revised definition and taxonomy of people who champion evaluation that includes activities, strategies, attributes, and motivations may help facilitate identification, recruitment, support, and development. If you would like to read more about evaluation champions in the meantime, a component of the literature review from this research has been published here: https://journals.sfu.ca/jmde/index.php/jmde_1/article/view/495