A deep, long lasting financial squeeze puts everyone in the creative sector in the same position – competing for scant resources that are only likely to diminish further.In this environment funders (Arts & Crafts Councils, Local Authorities, Trusts and Foundations and corporate sponsors) try their best to allocate scant resources wisely - so tend to be on the lookout for projects that can demonstrate solid outcomes and return on investment  in clearly articulated ways.When times are hard, it pays to evaluate – and evaluate thoroughly.  
Individuals and organisations that take the time to document their work painstakingly and prove their ability to add value without diluting quality stand a far higher chance of making it through the hard times. Over the next few years levels of scrutiny are likely to increase, not diminish. It will pay to be prepared.Lots of us work in situations where soft outcomes and qualitative measures are quite easy to assemble – it’s the quantitative data and value for money that are harder to capture and document. Also, there’s a real danger that evaluation is seen as something to be done ‘at the end’ rather than as a powerful tool to look at the way your day to day work informs your long term strategy and vice versa.I tend to think of evaluation in three stages:

  • Formative - benchmarking everything at the planning stage – even before work commences – and making sure that what has been planned is a good fit with the context into which it is going to be delivered.
  • Normative - monitoring, evaluating and documenting the ongoing work – and using this to fine tune delivery as it progresses.
  • Summative - comparing what actually happened against the original aims and objectives. Were the outcomes achieved as they were originally defined – what changed and why, what has been learned?

Evaluation is a powerful tool for both organisations and creative businesses. For organisations all of the above is true. For the sole trader or partnership great evaluation supports your case for selling your products and services – especially when they are being bought from a rapidly diminishing public purse.

Surprisingly, more than half of the freelance workers and lifestyle businesses I work with don’t have any formal system for gathering comment from clients. Being open to feedback is a powerful way for you to say to the client “your opinion matters”.

Sometimes a client will slip away from you – something you’ve done wasn’t quite right, or a situation mishandled. Sometimes people prefer to write things down, rather than risk confrontation by bringing it up face to face.

A simple form or some other means of collecting feedback gives you the chance to identify the source of the problem and put things right before the client jumps ship. And if as a result of the feedback, you can put things right, you can end up with a better relationship than you had before.

Case studies too are a powerful persuader - showing both evidence that you can do ‘what it said on the tin’ and some well chosen, powerful feedback from customers or participants that offer tangible proof of customer satisfaction - we rely a lot on the opinions of others when making buying choices.

Whether you gather data, use video and audio, take loads of photos, gather testimonials, use feedback forms, ask or observe your participants (the context will determine the best tools) you must do something. Failing to evaluate is failing to ensure that you have the material to keep everyone well enough informed about what you do, how you do it, and how successful you are in delivering the goods. It’s not really an option.

Evaluation underpins and informs everything else – Strategy, Business Planning, Marketing, Fundraising, Resource requirements…

  • It’s not just at the end – it’s all the way through.
  • Techniques need to be tailored to context and the people you are working with/selling to.
  • Documentation must gather material to suit all learning styles – visual, audio/text and interactive – this will help with marketing, fundraising and stuff for your website, blog & social media.
  • Collect a good balance of qualitative/soft and quantitative/hard evidence – so you can appeal to both logic and emotions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for quotes and testimonials – people are generally happy to oblige.
  • It’s never too late to start – if you’re half way through something and didn’t plan to evaluate it, start now – you can collect evidence retrospectively.

I came to writing via evaluation – and it’s still a big part of my work. At the moment I’m supporting a couple of projects with evaluation work – Pioneer Projects – who specialise in arts work with people living with Alzheimer’s via the Own Now project – working towards a Symposium to share good practice – and The Oxford Youth Arts Partnership – turning the evidence from their work on the Kick Arts programme for young people at risk into a toolkit of good practice.

These are long terms projects from 1-3 years duration. I get to gather all the great feedback and documentary evidence and help them turn it into something that grabs attention and makes the case for the work to continue. It’s both rewarding and a highly effective use of my writing skills.

If you need a hand to devise a plan, gather good data or develop legacy material, I’d  be pleased to talk with you. I’ve been evaluating projects, writing and providing training around monitoring and evaluation since the mid-eighties.

If you’d like to know more, have a look at my 25 page Evaluation Guide