Monday, 24 October 2011

Beyond happy sheets: outcome-focused event evaluation

By Penelope Beynon

Since joining the knowledge for development sector in June last year, I have participated in no less than 2 international conferences, 3 regional workshops and a host of cross-organisational meetings (and sent apologies for three times as many of each). Some cost money (for international or intercity travel), all have opportunity costs (being here instead of there) and they all cost time. 

As a participant, I find there is something innately attractive and energising about being together in a room with experts and peers that just cannot be simulated through online alternatives; but as a taxpayer I can’t quite shake that uncomfortable question – was it worth it?

In my role as M&E advisor I am occasionally asked how to evaluate events – while I haven’t yet found a tried and tested method that fits every event, I thought I’d share a few things I have learnt along the way.

With a few notable exceptions (e.g. A Process and Outcomes Evaluation of the International AIDS Conference, Lalonde et al 2007), most organisers fail to evaluate their events beyond a cursory feedback form that gauges audience satisfaction (commonly referred to as a ‘happy sheet’). But, if an organiser did want to push their evaluation to a new level and address the ‘uncomfortable’ question of worth – where would they begin?

In its most simplistic form, I propose that a worthwhile event evaluation needs to gather three types of information:
  • Costs 
  • Outcomes 
  • Reasonable alternatives

The full financial cost of events is rarely included in evaluation

The table below shows a summary of some areas where events incur costs. Unsurprisingly few organisers publish even the full financial costs of their events (grey box) or even add up their own financial and time costs (grey + purple boxes) for purposes of evaluation, let alone start to consider the sectoral costs of their event to participants and contributors.

Focusing on desired outcomes
Learning events may benefit all of these groups (P. Beynon, IDS)

1.    Spread your net wide when looking for outcomes

A common short coming of most outcome-focused event evaluations that I have unearthed (of which there are few to begin with) is a narrow concept of where benefits will occur and an almost exclusive focus on participants as the subjects for evaluation. Just as there are at least three groups who can incur costs for an event, these same groups could feasibly incur benefits (see diagram).

2.    Tailor your evaluation tools to match desired outcomes

Like all interventions, face-to-face events do not happen in isolation, they are usually part of a wider set of strategies intended (implicitly or explicitly) to contribute in some way to a programme's overall theory of change. Unfortunately, more often than not this link is not properly explored and event objectives read like either a) a less-than-ambitious list of activities, or b) an overly ambitious set of development aspirations well beyond anything the event could possibly deliver. Work closely with organisers to get to flesh out their theory of change and to situate the conference objectives within the wider programme context - then you will be able to tailor your evaluation tools to match the desired outcomes. While some organisers are coming up with interesting tools and approaches for outcome-focused event evaluation (e.g. network mapping (PDF), 3-test self-assessment) which I explore along with a few of our own attempts in a forthcoming ILT Practice In-Brief paper, most still limit their data sources to attendance records and the standard ‘happy sheet’.

3.    Follow through on your follow up!

The biggest limitation for most event evaluations is a lack of meaningful follow up. Change takes time, and unless you follow up with participants when they are back in their workplace you will only be able to capture intended behaviour change or the initial step towards an extended network. Be disciplined – schedule event follow ups for 3, 6 even 12 months after the fact.

Is there a cheaper way to achieve the same outcomes?
Well, this really is the million dollar question, and without a clear picture of our costs and benefits it just cannot be answered. But when you do have this level of information for one event, you will be able to start comparing that event with another and maybe even progress on to comparing all your face to face events with other strategies that use different tactics to achieve similar aims: such as ongoing rather than one-off events; online rather than face to face convening; 1 to 1 rather than convened events...

To conclude
As the saying goes, “If it’s worth doing at all it is worth doing properly” - so I urge organisers to go beyond ‘happy sheets’ and really scrutinise the worth of their events for their own sake and for the sake of the sector.