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Visionary Evaluation for a Sustainable, Equitable Future

December 5, 2014

By Matthew Birnbaum
Senior Evaluation Officer, IMLS

I had the privilege of participating in the 28th annual conference of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) in Denver, October 15-18. Attracting thousands of domestic and international evaluators from education, government, nonprofit organizations and private firms, the meeting is the world's premiere evaluation conference. The four-day program covered a range of issues, from statistical methods to processes for making evaluation research more useful for program staff and policymakers.

During the conference, I learned how evaluators are applying their talents in different settings to build relationships with those gaining experience with program evaluation. For instance, Paola Babos of UNICEF talked about the care and effort that her organization devotes in helping national and local governments in grief-stricken places in Western and Central Africa improve the delivery of essential humanitarian services. Tom Chapel from the Centers for Disease Control discussed tools that his evaluation office uses to help scientists describe and measure important outcomes from their research grants.

While the conference had relatively few participants from museums and libraries, those in attendance provided valuable lessons. As one example, I listened to a group of evaluators who work with libraries in Hennepin County, Minnesota, discuss a variety of tools that libraries there are using to collect and analyze data from patrons. These included “ticket stations” (a creative survey tool that enables quick and easy participation) as well as “video booths” for youth to be interviewed about the benefits they receive from participating in targeted library programs.

The AEA conference enabled museum and library evaluators to gain critical skills to build community and foster goodwill. We all benefit when more of us from our field are in one room, talking together. We learn even more when we cross-pollinate with evaluators in other fields. The wisdom for improving evaluation practices is universal.