Evaluating Complex Social Initiatives

Srik Gopal at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “…the California Endowment (TCE) .. and ..The Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF) …are just two funders who are actively “shifting the lens” in terms of how they are looking at evaluation in the light of complexity. They are building on the recognition that a traditional approach to evaluation—assessing specific effects of a defined program according to a set of pre-determined outcomes, often in a way that connects those outcomes back to the initiative—is increasingly falling short. There is a clear message emerging that evaluation needs to accommodate complexity, not “assume it away.”

My colleagues at FSG and I have, based on our work with TCE, GRCF, and numerous other clients, articulated a set of nine “propositions” in a recent practice brief that are helpful in guiding how we conceptualize, design, and implement evaluations of complex initiatives. We derived these propositions from what we now know (based on the emerging field of complexity science) as distinctive characteristics of complex systems. We know, for example, that complex systems are always changing, often in unpredictable ways; they are never static. Hence, we need to design evaluations so that they are adaptive, flexible, and iterative, not rigid and cookie-cutter.

Below are three of the propositions in more detail, along with tools and methods that can help apply the proposition in practice.

It is important to note that many of the traditional tools and methods that form the backbone of sound evaluations—such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys—are still relevant. We would, however, suggest that organizations adapt those methods to reflect a complexity orientation. For example, interviews should explore the role of context; we should not confine them to the initiative’s boundaries. Focus groups should seek to understand local adaptation, not just adherence. And surveys should probe for relationships and interdependencies, not just perceived outcomes. In addition to traditional methods, we suggest incorporating newer, innovative techniques that provide a richer narrative, including:

  • Systems mapping—an iterative, often participatory process of graphically representing a system, including its components and connections
  • Appreciative inquiry—a group process that inquires into, identifies, and further develops the best of “what is” in organizations
  • Design thinking—a user-centered approach to developing new solutions to abstract, ill-defined, or complex problems… (More)”