Since our founding over 15 years, ago, Community Science has seen a great expansion in the practice of evaluation by foundations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Nowadays just about every grantee knows that their funder is going to want an evaluation of their work or some data to show that they are achieving what they set out to achieve. Two challenges emerge from this promotion of evaluation. First, evaluation costs time and money, especially if you use an outside evaluator. Few organizations know what to look for in an evaluator or in a good evaluation. If evaluation is too expensive to do on a regular basis, it becomes something done for the funder and not for the benefit of the organization or the people it serves. It cannot become a “habit” if the cost is too great to sustain. A second challenge is that many organizations are collecting data about their community and work- some are even drowning in it. However, there has been relatively little effort placed on how to use data for strategy improvement to do a better job in addressing social problems and make important organizational decisions, and advocate for better policies and programs. In order to advocate for change, evidence is critical. Not only can outside evaluations be non-sustainable and cost-prohibitive, they often leave decision-makers with data they can't completely understand, or act upon.
These challenges put our spotlight for the last several years on building organizational and community capacity to monitor, evaluate, reflect, and act using data and other sources of knowledge. It is essential for organizations to have access to sound relevant data that have already been collected from schools, government agencies, and other public projects. One of the earliest issues Community Science has been addressing is data inequity- the unequal access to data about communities and their residents. Very often businesses, government agencies, and consulting firms have access to data that local community-based organizations cannot get because of costs or availability. Community Science has conducted two studies to look at how data in every state can be made more accessible by community based organizations. One looked at the drug abuse related data for the White House Office of National Drug Abuse Policy and the other was recently completed for the Office of Minority Health on data related to the social determinants of health. Community Science will also be conducting a town hall meeting on November 14th about how the federal government can increase access to useful and useable data by community based organizations as part of our Knowledge for Equity Conference (see www.knowledge4equity.com).
Access to data is just the starting point. Data capacity building also involves: knowing what questions you want to ask, and developing the skills to analyze the data, answering the questions or tell the story, reflecting on what you have learned and then decide on the actions that are needed to develop or improve current systems. In simplest terms, organizations need to continuously collect, analyze, format, learn, reflect, and plan. This approach turns simple information into insight and ultimately, action.
Community Science recognizes these challenges and tailors our approach to address them. We go deeper, and get more hands-on to help clients understand what is working, what is not, and how to make changes to improve outcomes of their work based on data - while helping them build the knowledge and skills internally to act on the data they have collected.
Community Science realizes that if knowledge from evaluations is going to lead to change, organizations need the systems in place to use collect, analyze and use data on a regular basis as part of their organizations culture.
Through training, workshops, and publications, Community Science has been able to help clients like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Mississippi and the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Partnership for Action to increase capacity across the evaluative process, from data collection to analysis, especially in the areas of:
• Providing an inventory of resources and support for networks of organizations that share collected data;
• Educating grantees to "shop smarter" for evaluators;
• Training and empowering internal evaluators and researchers on accessing and using data;
• Providing workbooks to support training initiatives;
• Developing Performance Evaluation And Reflective Learning Systems (PEARLS);
• Setting up and strengthening relationships between grantees and evaluators; and
• Improving quality and impact of process evaluations.
Through partnerships with the Community Indicators Consortium, PolicyLink, the Prevention Institute, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, and Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, Community Science is working to create peer support networks nationwide.
Community Science has recently facilitated a series of national workshops, Data Makes a Difference: Practical Tips for Using Data to Address Health Disparities (data-difference.com). This workshop series taught those with little to no exposure to data to develop a basic knowledge about data-related health disparities. Community Science trainers used common scenarios to guide participants through steps needed to process data to address a specific disparity. Critical thinking was encouraged through guided questions and discussions. Participants learned strategies to ensure that the entire process of data access, interpretation and use could be used to strengthen efforts to bring a community together to address health disparities.