COVID-19 has presented unforeseen challenges to our communities, and the local organizations supporting them have had to adapt to emerging needs with incredible speed. Similarly, our role as evaluators, facilitators, and consultants looks far different a few months into the pandemic than we could have imagined at its onset.
Continuing to center empathy in our work
Our personal and professional lives have intersected in new and challenging ways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Our firm has always aimed to put the emotional well-being of our colleagues and clients front and center. During this pandemic, we especially seek to have empathy for each individual’s personal and professional situation and acknowledge that everyone has been affected in different ways. We understand and expect that meetings will often need to be rescheduled due to personal matters; that children, parents, and animals may make guest appearances during video meetings; that communication methods need to be extra flexible; and that many will need to care for loved ones full-time in addition to fulfilling their professional responsibilities.
This heightened focus on empathy is connecting us with clients in a more personal way and allowing us to learn more about each other outside of our work lives. Such focused attention on each other’s multiple identities is strengthening our relationships in ways we never expected and leading to a stronger shared commitment to our work.
Recognizing changing contexts and responding to emerging needs
The COVID-19 crisis has pushed us to become even more deeply embedded into the fabric of the communities in which we work. As with any large, systemic shift in community circumstances, we are incorporating COVID-19 into the larger context of our work—through dedicating data collection efforts to understanding the impact of COVID-19 on community members’ health and well-being, and assessing participants’ understanding of their organization’s policies around family leave, health, and remote work. We are highlighting the impacts of COVID-19 in reports and presentations with the addition of relevant health data and information. For example, one recent public sector project specifically addressed how people experiencing homeless would be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
While proactive strategies have always been a hallmark of our practice, crises like COVID-19 necessitate reflection on project progress. In addition to contextualizing research within a systems-thinking narrative, we practice adaptable evaluation approaches using contingency plans and mid-course corrections. It is often beneficial to revisit scopes of work to ensure alignment between original project goals while simultaneously addressing systemic shifts in the project and larger community context. We have found success in asking clients whether the original timeline and review process will work with current demands on their time, and whether they’d like our team’s role to shift to most effectively complete the work.
Addressing digital inequities among clients and community members
Like many others at this time, we are using video platforms, such as Zoom, HighFive, and GotoMeeting as a primary means to connect with clients and partners. As the use of these platforms for various purposes has increased, we are attuned to inequities in computer and internet access. We have also seen many benefits of using digital platforms to increase engagement across our communities.
For example, using virtual platforms for focus groups reduces the time and travel costs associated with participation. Removing these barriers has allowed us to broaden our pool of participants, which has been especially beneficial to our ability to engage with more people living in rural areas. Especially at a time when in-person meetings are not feasible, the unique benefits we have experienced with virtual focus groups have highlighted their ongoing importance a valuable data collection tool.
Although there are benefits to virtual focus groups and convenings, we are mindful of inequities in access to and familiarity with technology that may be prohibitive of participation. To help participants feel prepared to participate in a digital focus group, we actively inquire about accessibility, clearly communicate instructions, and encourage questions prior to the meeting. Often collecting data through multiple means (e.g., email survey in addition to video calls) can help meet participants where they are, and many video platforms allow for phone dial-in for those without internet access. We also encourage participants to complete a preparedness checklist to ensure they have basic technology and information necessary to participate in the focus group (e.g., instructions to access and download the video platform prior to the meeting, review the group expectations and agreements). This also allows us to address questions and ensure participants’ comfort in advance of the meeting.
Though COVID-19 has brought darkness and unexpected change to the world, we are drawing light from the situation we are in. The pandemic has provided us an important moment of reflection in our daily practices. With this we have recommitted to the pieces of our work and relationships that are most important, and we are more committed than ever to using the power of data to build thriving communities. Some of our adapted approaches build upon goals we’ve always held, such as bringing empathy and equity to the work. Others are novel approaches to connecting community members and creating contingency plans for projects that can no longer be executed as originally planned.
In sharing what we are experiencing and learning, we hope to spark a conversation about how we can evolve and strengthen evaluation work during uncertain times. As a field, we must recommit to why we do our work, and consider opportunities to work together and share the lessons and insights we are gaining during this time to improve our practices in the long-term.