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Q&A with Jara Dean-Coffey, Director of the Equitable Evaluation Initative

Jul 17, 2020

Jara Dean-Coffey is the Director of Equitable Evaluation Initiative, which works to update nonprofit evaluation practices in order to promote equity. Dean-Coffey recently spoke with Interact for Health about the EEI's work and her vision for the future of evaluation.

Interact for Health: What are the work and goals of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative?        

Dean-Coffey: The Equitable Evaluation Initiative is a five-year effort that seeks to shift the paradigm so that evaluation becomes a tool for and of equity, as well as to evolve 21st-century definitions of validity, rigor and complexity. It is focused on institutions that have already embraced equity as core to their work, as they tend to have an openness and readiness to challenge many of the norms of the United States. Our goals include supporting and advancing a shared vision of evaluation practice that can better serve toward creating a world in which we can all thrive; shared inquiry about all aspects of the evaluative process; and putting into practice our Equitable Evaluation Framework and creating a sustainable field of practitioners of the framework.

By design, the EEI has focused its efforts in its first year and a half on philanthropy, a critical entry point for this work as the primary purchaser and user of evaluation in the United States outside of government. Foundations drive supply--the services evaluators and consultants provide. They also have power to shape and resource demand within nonprofits and communities that are not well-served by the prevailing evaluation paradigm. The initiative is committed to working within and across all three of these sectors to build shared understanding, challenge assumptions and craft new approaches. We hope to build out the consultant strategy later this year and are starting to explore ways to support professors mostly teaching at the graduate level. 

Interact for Health: How has evaluation been used by foundations and nonprofits in the past and present, and how do you see EEI taking evaluation into the next era?  

Dean-Coffey: First, it is difficult to speak about evaluation of an entire sector in generalities. There are always exceptions. Second, the more important focus of this question is where we can go in the next era as a result of practicing the Equitable Evaluation Framework. 

Evaluation--both past and present--by foundations has been primarily focused on the nonprofit organizations that receive funding and their constituents. While some evaluative work may focus on learning more about a community or group, and others as to whether a long-term strategy is effective, efficiencies are the heavy focus. Evaluation is a critical element and function of strategy and learning yet has been kept siloed and silent which, in part, results in transactional relationships internally and externally. This may support the efficiency model and allocation of resources for evaluation and learning but does so with the unintentional consequences or unconscious result---or conscious in some cases--that exacerbates the circumstances rendering solutions unrealized and results unattainable. 

We do not believe that evaluation should continue to be in service of appraising the value of human worth, motivation or achievement. That frame assumes there is a good and a bad and often that which is deemed good centers whiteness and white dominant framing as the ideal. We've emphasized the doing of evaluation. The doing of service delivery. The doing of trying to improve one's life or circumstances or their children's or their community efficiency of doing as though efficiency and effectiveness are symbiotic when they are not. 

As we advance the Equitable Evaluation Framework we envision a field of evaluation practitioners who expand definitions of rigor and validity and embrace 21st-century complexity. Doing so will require practitioners to unlearn white-dominant framing, hold the tensions that will be ever present as we shift paradigms and continue to evolve the field of practice to be in service of equity. Building the field ensures we all hold the responsibility and accountability to do better because we are learning how to be better in this space. Over the next three and a half years, we will continue to work with our partners to co-create ways of practice of the Equitable Evaluation Framework.  As we learn, we'll be able to inform the field. 

Interact for Health: Could you describe the personal and professional journey that led you to create EEI? 

Dean-Coffey: It has been a more than eight-year journey, but here are some things that continue to ground me. As an African American female working in the United States, I am aware there is a balance between allure and expiration, particularly in the settler-created philanthropic industrial complex. Harsh but true. I work at the intersection of strategy and evaluation--evaluative thinking and explicitly how that needs to be contextually based in values for equity and liberation. When I turned 45 I had an eye toward 50 and given the previous statement I wanted to leverage that as best I could. Also because I work in the in-between spaces I see ways in which organizational culture gets in the way of both strategy and evaluative efforts. There were things I saw and wanted to say and thought that at age 50 folks might pay attention. 

Interact for Health: You've worked with organizations to put this work into practice. Could you share a brief story that illustrates EEI in action?

Dean-Coffey: As our partners begin to put the Equitable Evaluation Framework into practice we are noticing important shifts. At the start of the U.S. acknowledgement and response to the pandemic, our partners, like others, were figuring out how to respond to community needs. Often urgency is the hotbed of abandonment of ideals and values. Not enough time to slow down, pay attention, be intentional with the hope that when there is time we'll go back and fix things. But often retrospective looks back don't occur or occur too far removed to reassess, recalibrate and redistribute. The shift is in being able to recognize the patterns and behaviors of doing and pull back---sometimes just a breath or two and a conversation or two to ask some pivotal questions about who, how, why and to what extent--so as to be fully in. Remaining present and responsive allows for values and ideals to be at the forefront of every endeavor whether small or large. Our partners reached out to each other during the pandemic. It was led by the Oregon Community Foundation, which asked to learn from and engage in conversation about how others in our community were ensuring efforts were led by the Equitable Evaluation Framework. Building on some work EEI was engaged in with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the opportunity spectrum was created to support others who sought a way to engage the framework in their response. This is the EEI in action. It's not about one organization or a specific project or effort. It's about building a sustainable field of practice where we are pushing the paradigm and boundaries and supporting one another while in the work. 

Interact for Health: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Dean-Coffey: Oh my, I am not very good at talking about myself. My husband always says he has to ask me three times before I say anything that reveals so we will see what I can do with being asked this once. I guess being a consultant who has had her own practice for 20+ years. I was young so I didn't know better, but it has been a choice I have never regretted. Next I would say, getting both nominated and elected to the American Evaluation Association Board of Directors. It was not something I sought but it has been tremendously rewarding and I feel of service in a way that makes space for the continued evolution of evaluation. 

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned through your work?

Dean-Coffey: First, the truer I am to myself and all my identities and complexities the happier I am. Second, this is messy, complex and complicated work full of tensions and uncertainty but also joy, wonder and humanity. The more I hold the latter the easier it is to stay with the former. Third, honesty and transparency go a long way. Lastly, the more I know, the more I realize what I don't know and being upfront about that has been freeing for me and for others and we can figure it out or not.

Interact for Health: What about your work gives you hope?

Dean-Coffey: The people. When I am talking about the Equitable Evaluation Initiative and/or the Equitable Evaluation Framework it gives me hope when someone reaches out to me and says "thank you," for one of a few reasons: for reminding me why I got into this work in the first place, for affirming my belief and feelings that something was not right about evaluation and that it could and should be different, and for saying what I wanted to say but could not or did not know how to say it.  

Interact for Health: How do you expect the coronavirus pandemic, the protests against police violence and renewed scrutiny of inequity and systemic racism will affect and guide your work going forward?

Dean-Coffey: This moment informs our work but this work began before we started it. We simply saw an opportunity, an opening, as it were, to bring this conversation to light in 2013. EEI is focused on the settler-created philanthropic industrial complex, specifically those who are already in the work of challenging white dominant culture and its evaluation paradigm. The challenge for us, who are also in practice of the Equitable Evaluation Framework, and our partners will be to stay present in the work and avoid the default which often comes in times of disruption or stress. Rather than rush to react, this moment requires them to release old ways of being, thinking and doing, which means slowing down to be intentional, thoughtful, reflexive and responsive. We hope that this moment offers all of us in the philanthropic sector another entry point for doing better through deep internal personal and organizational reflection, realignment of resources and shifting culture and practices to center equity, to embrace the complexity of the 21st century and to advance definitions of rigor and validity. 

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