19 Participatory Approaches to Evaluating Community Organizing and Coalition Building
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346 19 Participatory Approaches to Evaluating Community Organizing and Coalition Building CHRIS M. COOMBE Evaluation is one of the most challenging and promising issues in community organizing and community building for health and welfare. In recent years, funders and government decision makers have increasingly focused on evidencebased practice, accountability, and measurable outcomes to prove program success. However, community organizing and community building efforts emphasize empowerment, collaboration, participation, community competence, and equity as essential to achieving the long-term aim of changing the conditions that contribute to health and well-being (Chávez et al. 2010). While communities see such capacity building as an important outcome, its impact on health can be elusive to evaluate, and the focus on measuring narrow health indicators may not capture longer-term effects on community health and equity (Wallerstein et al. 2011). The result has been a tension in which community practitioners often feel that evaluation is imposed upon them in an externally driven process that does not consider the unique resources, capacity, or context of their community, and they fear that evaluation will result in loss of funding because of perceived lack of success by decision makers (Judd et al. 2001). Further, many organizations lack the skills, knowledge, and resources needed to conduct standard “objective” outcome evaluation. Faced with insufficient resources to address complex and intransigent health and social problems, community practitioners are often reluctant to spend scarce funds on an external evaluator to assess the value and worth of their work in a process they perceive to be proving rather than improving (Margerison 1987). Over the past several decades, these challenges, combined with the expansion of comprehensive community initiatives, coalitions, and community-based participatory research (CBPR), have led to the development and widespread acceptance of participatory and collaborative methods and approaches to evaluation (Connell et al. 1995; Fetterman and Wandersman 2005; Scarinci et al. 2009; Springett and Wallerstein 2008; Sufian et al. 2011; Wallerstein 2002, 2007). PARTICIPATORY APPROACHES TO EVALUATION 347 Central among them is participatory evaluation, a partnership approach to evaluation that engages those who have a stake in the project, program, or initiative in all aspects of evaluation design and implementation. Findings are applied as they emerge to solve problems and adjust course. Most important for community organizing and community building, participatory evaluation also departs from conventional evaluation by rethinking who owns and controls the process of creating, interpreting, and applying knowledge and to what end. In the emancipatory stream of participatory evaluation, both the process and products of evaluation are used to transform power relations and to promote social action and change (Cousins and Whitmore 1998). This chapter examines how participatory approaches to evaluation can be used not only for assessing the merit and effectiveness of community organizing, but also for building organizational and community capacity for social change. First, some limitations of conventional evaluation are discussed to establish the rationale for a more participatory approach. Next, the theoretical foundation of participatory approaches to evaluation is described, including its roots in participatory research traditions from several disciplines. Drawing upon recent work in participatory evaluation, a practical framework then is suggested for incorporating this approach at each step of the evaluation process. The final sections discuss some of the benefits as well as challenges of this approach. Limitations of Conventional Evaluation: Rationale for a Participatory Approach Participatory approaches to evaluation arose in response to the limitations of conventional program evaluation, in particular the questions of what is knowledge , who creates it, how, and to what end. The traditional and still-dominant approach to evaluating community health promotion programs is rooted in the positivist paradigm of the medical and natural sciences, which views knowledge as an objective reality that can be discovered by impartial observers. Using the scientific method and experimental design, unbiased external evaluators test hypotheses by measuring the impact of a program on specified outcomes, using statistical-analysis techniques designed to show change and causal relationships. While this is a powerful research model, there are some important limitations to its usefulness in evaluating community organizing and community building endeavors. First, community initiatives and community organizing involve complex systems change that requires intervention at multiple levels, making it difficult to determine causal relationships. Community efforts are dynamic and continually evolving to respond to rapidly changing environments. As a result, strategies, targets, and indicators are likely to change throughout the project, making evaluation unpredictable. Further, funder requirements to focus on predetermined quantifiable measures of success may shift priorities to more short-term...

Subject Headings

  • Health promotion.
  • Community health services -- Citizen participation.
  • Community organization.
  • Community development.
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