by | May 30, 2024

Campaigning in solidarity: Evaluating what matters

Fourth and last blog in our series about campaigning in solidarity. How do we know our campaigns are making a difference? And who gets to decide that anyway? We spoke to our Learning Partner and participatory evaluation specialist, Sarah Rose, and to Gemma McCaughley from The Community Foundation Northern Ireland, about how participatory evaluation can look – both in theory and practice. 

This series offers insights from our programme for Oak Foundation’s UK Housing and Homelessness partners, bringing together theory and practice to develop new thinking for Solidarity in Social Change.  

Know the change you want to make 

Social change is complex and unpredictable. Knowing whether our work has contributed to that change can feel almost impossible. As a result, the world of monitoring and evaluation is packed with tools and processes – often full of jargon and focused on gathering numbers as tangible evidence of success. Organisations want to know whether they’ve made a difference but proving it can feel time consuming – or meaningless.  

 According to Sarah Rose, one way to make evaluation meaningful is to link it to a Theory of Change. This will help you get clear about the change you want to make and the action needed to make it happen. The most useful are simple, specific and pragmatic. For example, policy change doesn’t always lead to actual change in society – sometimes it’s just the beginning of a process. Ask yourself what success would look like and be clear about the achievable steps you need to take towards each outcome. 

 As you develop your Theory of Change, be honest about: 

  • your sphere of controle.g. the number of meetings or events you’ll deliver 
  • your sphere of influence – e.g. changes to attitudes or relationships 
  • your sphere of concern – e.g. the political or societal change you’re seeking 

This will clarify the information you’ll need to gather to know whether you’re making a difference. Hard facts and figures may be appropriate for tracking things you can really control, but stories are more useful for less tangible shifts you’re hoping to influence – such as building stronger public awareness or relationships based on trust.  

This doesn’t need to be complicated – less really is more. Use your Theory of Change to identify what information is most critical. Some insights gathered on an online noticeboard, or voice notes, might be enough.  

Involve the people it matters to most 

Making the leap to participatory evaluation can feel daunting but involving the people you work with can both strengthen and simplify your approach.  

The perspectives of people whose lives are directly affected will deepen your understanding of what matters most and what the consequences of actions might be. And they could challenge your assumptions about what counts as evidence of success – as well as how to collect, interpret and communicate that evidence. 

Take time to think through the different ways people can be involved at each stage of the process. Rather than simply filling out a survey, people could: 

  • work with you to define intended outcomes 
  • gather ‘data’ or stories, or help set up accessible tracking systems  
  • make​ sense of what you’re hearing by analysing data and generating insights 
  • feed insights back to the communities you work with 
  • have a role in decision-making​ about next steps 
  • support or lead communications​ from your project

Putting it into practice: Community Foundation Northern Ireland 

Community Foundation Northern Ireland’s Social Innovation and Community Voice programme put lived, first-hand experience at the heart of the design and delivery of services and solutions to housing stress and homelessness​. This was represented on the project team and steering group, as well as in funded projects. 

Programme Officer Gemma McCaughley described how a participatory evaluator was contracted from the very start, working alongside the steering group to co-design the evaluation approach and gaining a deep understanding of the programme.  

The programme took an iterative approach, with a moment to ‘stop and reflect’ at the end of each grant cycle, but working participatively meant guidance and insights were available to tweak the direction of the programme throughout.  

The key to engaging people in the learning and evaluation process was to make it fun and active. Simple tools like ‘After Action Review’ ensured everyone’s voice was heard in deciding what worked, and what didn’t. 

Keep it simple: Developing a culture of reflective learning 

Not everyone can employ an external evaluator, but rather than getting bogged down in complex tools and processes, Sarah and Gemma both recommend starting with five key principles: 

Identify your values: Be clear about how you choose to work – and be led by those values. 

Ask why: Ask why you’re measuring what you’re measuring, whose needs you’re trying to meet and why.  

Be honest: Be realistic about what’s fixed and what’s flexible, manage expectations carefully. 

Be responsive: Be sure to listen to, and act on, any information you gather – or don’t collect it at all. 

Be inclusive: Evaluation can be simple – it doesn’t need to be complicated or technical. 

Power imbalances are always embedded in our work for change. Working together, ensuring people’s time and contributions are properly valued, is a way to shift that dynamic. So, the process – as much as the outcome – contributes to change.  

At its heart, participatory evaluation is simply a commitment to shared learning – rather than extracting knowledge or asking for feedback out of the blue. When you can develop a culture that encourages everyone to ask questions and reflect, you’ll develop a more thoughtful assessment of the difference you’re making, strengthen relationships and be truly accountable to those whose lives your actions will most affect.  



Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the Head of Power and Participation at SMK



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