As I get ready to retire as CEO of Harder+Company in a few months, I have been thinking a lot about how the field we work in—the social sector in general, and evaluation and strategy for that sector in particular—has changed over the last 30-plus years.
When I founded Harder+Company in 1986, an evaluator’s job was primarily to document whether social programs had accomplished their goals. This only sometimes included helping clients define those goals, and we were rarely asked to provide insight into a client’s larger strategy. We focused mainly on who the service users were and how much of what types of services they used.
Today, evaluators do far more. The evaluation questions are more complex, the role of context in understanding impact is more important, and the methods we use are more sophisticated and powerful. Clients now ask us to be thought partners and strategists. As the information needs of our clients have expanded, we’ve developed new approaches to assess change at a systems level and use data as a tool for organizational development. Most of our work now moves between learning and strategy. Our clients are asking new questions, and we have an obligation and opportunity to respond with new insight.
Evaluators—and social sector consultants in general—are now an integral part of a client’s team, not bystanders to the work. At Harder+Company, our commitment to this deeper level of engagement started with putting “community research” right in our name. We have always strived to make the work useful, which led us from the outset to emphasize engagement, participation, cultural responsiveness, and inclusion. This made us an innovator at a time when the field was more focused on “objective” data. Over time, we have added strategy, capacity building, and organizational development as tools to support the change we hope to achieve with our clients. It is not enough to “know,” we also help our clients “do.” This commitment to action is at the heart of our understanding of why this work matters.
Like the social sector as a whole, consultants and evaluators are increasingly confronting inequality. The most compelling conversation in the field right now is about how the tools of evaluation, learning, and strategy can help to promote justice and fairness. And, the evaluation field is taking a much harder look at itself, questioning the inherent inequality in the relationship between “expert” consultants and the communities where we often work. Harder+Company formally entered this conversation 15 years ago with our focus on culturally-based consulting. What started as an effort to make sure our methods were culturally competent became for us a field-leading initiative to define and reconcile power and privilege in the social sector. It has been particularly gratifying to see our field engage honestly with these essential issues, broadening the scope of our work and our responsibility to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The field of people doing this work is more robust and diverse than ever. From my earliest days, I have always been proud to support the work of other social sector consulting firms and practitioners, even those who are occasionally our competitors. When Harder+Company was founded, we were part of a bold new trend—operating as a for-profit corporation while pursuing a community benefit mission. Now many firms across the country are thriving under this model and making a genuine impact. (Several firms here in California were started by leaders who learned their trade at Harder+Company.) By working together to broaden the field, we make it stronger.
I am also proud of the many individuals who have been part of our company since our inception. A network of Harder+Company “alumni” now work across the country in foundations, government, nonprofit organizations, and private sector businesses. They are leaders, innovators, activists, and deep thinkers in many fields, eager to use data, research, and evaluation to empower people and organizations.
An essential part of developing our own staff and the field has been our commitment to creating more opportunities for people from underrepresented groups. At Harder+Company, we take seriously our obligation to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive evaluation field. We work toward that goal every day through homegrown efforts and by participating in national initiatives to develop the practice skills of diverse evaluation professionals.
The future is bright. With my departure, Harder+Company will continue to thrive in this dynamic field. I have the deepest confidence in our president, Michelle Magee, and the incredibly talented team that make up the company today. I am confident that we will continue to stay ahead of the most provocative questions facing our field and push ourselves to exceed client expectations.
I am grateful for the many colleagues I have known, inside and outside of our company. Together we have seen our field become more complex, challenging, and rewarding. Evaluation and other types of knowledge-based activities have become fundamental parts of the work of many social sector organizations. When we started as a group of four people sitting around a kitchen table in San Francisco in the ‘80s we had no idea if we would be successful. It was unlikely, in fact. Were we surprised! From that most modest of beginnings, we have become a thriving and dynamic company employing hundreds of people over time. It has been a pleasure to have been at the heart of this work for so long. I have loved every minute of it.