This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at evalacademy.com.
Sitting down to figure out how long your evaluation activities will take can be a daunting process. Evaluations are trickier than programs as they often rely on program timelines and external activities. How can you plan and predict your evaluation activities when they are dependent on other activities? How can you ensure you have the information you need when you need it? This article provides 5 tips to answer those questions and help you create a plan that will actually work for your evaluation.
Tip 1: Start at the end
Start by clarifying who needs which information by when. Make sure you clarify expectations about the review process to ensure that you have the correct date. For example, the board may need information for an August 10th meeting, but the information may need to be sent with the board package, which is prepared two weeks in advance, and vetted by the Executive Director who requires at least a week to review the information and suggest changes. This drastically changes your “due date” from August 10th to July 20th or earlier.
Tip 2: Work backwards
Now that you know when the information is required by you can work backwards from this deadline to plot out your data collection and analysis timelines. Estimate how long reporting will take. Block out that time. Plot out any evaluation activities which are directly tied to program activities (e.g. pre surveys need to be sent before program activities, post surveys need to be sent a set amount of time afterwards). Plan to analyze data soon after it is collected whenever possible.
The article could really end here as these are the most important tips, but we do have a few more tricks up our sleeves.
Tip 3: Leave a buffer
Wherever possible, leave your team some wiggle room, especially at the analysis and reporting phases. This gives you extra time when data collection activities inevitably get pushed because program timelines change or when you receive catastrophically bad administrative data which takes an extra week to analyze, or when a team member gets sick. The amount of time you leave for analysis and reporting is one of the few things you can exert the most control over when planning an evaluation and can be the first to disappear if evaluation timelines get compressed.
Tip 4: Be flexible
Change happens. Especially in evaluation. Being clear on your own timelines and constraints (and budget!) means that you can be a bit more flexible when conducting your evaluation. As an evaluator, be prepared to jump on fortuitous opportunities to collect and share data. Program changes can present hidden opportunities to gather more data. Having to move when you analyze your data because the program got extended by another week shouldn’t be the end of the world for your evaluation.
Tip 5: Communicate your timelines clearly and consistently
We cannot stress this one enough. Remind your clients, stakeholders, and teammates of relevant evaluation timelines and do so consistently. Reminding others about your deadlines and communicating when you need information by and why (i.e. there’s a hard deadline for the board report) can help ensure that you get what you need when you need it. For some clients, a weekly or monthly status report can signal what information is needed to keep the evaluation on track and delayed data can be presented as a risk; while for others, simply adding evaluation data provision as an action item in a meeting works just fine.
With these five tips under your belt you should be well on your way to planning a well thought out evaluation.
If you need ideas for how to visualize your evaluation timelines, check out 4 different ways in this article.
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