KnightBlog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Aug 21, 2015

Evalu-cations: The indispensable alliance between evaluation and communications

Posted by Jonathan Sotsky

Photo credit: Flickr user Richard Matthews.

A hallmark of my time supporting research and evaluation at Knight Foundation has been a close working relationship with our communications team. This partnership has been a key ingredient for the development and dissemination of a series of successful reports Knight has published in recent years. So when I recently encountered a Communications Network blog post lamenting the challenged relationship between evaluation people and communications people, I felt compelled to speak out on behalf of the way our teams have partnered at Knight.

If I had to pick a word that binds evaluation and communications together it would be “strategy.” All those fancy tools in the evaluator’s toolkit like the theory of change or logic model (which I’m often reluctant to use with program teams fearing they can do more to alienate than to assuage) are really just communications exercises for teasing out strategy. And both functions will attest that working with program teams early in the life cycle of a grant or an initiative to clarify the goals and tactics is a prerequisite for effective measurement and communications.

No Knight project exemplifies the results of strong collaboration between evaluation and communications more than our Civic Tech report, “The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field.” While the research findings captured in the SlideShare were certainly compelling, I have no doubt that the interactive data visualization accompanying the report amplified interest and uptake tenfold; the report’s received 18,150 page views in the first three months of release. The combination of good research and good communications saw an increase in media coverage and discussions around civic tech, as well as a landmark trend in the use of #civictech on social media with 1,734 mentions in the three months following the report’s release. The bottom line? Collaboration between communications and evaluation can go beyond the pages of a report or website and spell impact for an entire field. Furthermore, our communications team was instrumental in building a mechanism into the report for readers to submit additional data to Knight; this both fueled engagement and yielded enough responses for us to release an updated version a few months later with all the crowdsourced data.

Another recent example of the joint efforts of our teams is a report Knight published about obstacles and motivators to millennial voting in local elections. Again, a SlideShare with findings would have sufficed but our communications team came up with a more interactive design that also reframed the findings using more casual language that would appeal to millennials, the subject of the report.  They also organized a Twitter chat about the report that led to 1,661 mentions in a single day! This type of broad engagement around the findings of foundation research simply could not happen but for the efforts of our communications team.

Do I always see eye to eye with my communications colleagues? Of course not. As they can attest from many back-and-forth exchanges about framing findings in reports and press releases, evaluation’s knack for being a stickler for precisely stating what the research says and caveating what it doesn’t can come at the detriment of concise, clear communications. But as Eric Brown, departing communications director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, recently put it in his farewell blog post, “I propose a new partnership for the twenty-first century—that of the communications and evaluations people.” The work of research and evaluation is only worth doing if the findings are communicated in a way that shapes learning and ultimately strategy.

Note: This blog post was made possible by my terrific communications colleagues Michael Bolden, who edited the post; Anusha Alikhan, who provided advice on the impact of our work; and Elizabeth Tilis, who is likely tweeting about the post this very instant.

Jonathan Sotsky is director of strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation. Email him at sotsky@knightfoundation.org and follow him on Twitter @jonsotsky.

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