Posted by Rachel Albert and Laura Beals

American Evaluation AssocationA few weeks ago we attended the 27th Annual Conference of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) in Washington, DC. We had the pleasure of mingling with luminaries in the field of evaluation. Participants came from places such as France, Africa, and Australia; industries represented included health care, education, social services, and more; participants included, but were not limited to, internal evaluators, academics, foundation managers, and statisticians.

Laura presented at the conference and discussed how JF&CS handles requests for research collaborations initiated by students and faculty. Given JF&CS is surrounded by 58 institutions of higher learning in Greater Boston, we have many opportunities to increase our evaluation capacity through these collaborations. But to do so effectively and efficiently, we have developed a formal process to evaluate each opportunity.

While our presentation was well attended, we also benefitted from the deep insights of others in the field. In some respects, this conference felt like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. Here are a few highlights, framed through a data-driven lens.


The AEA conference included 2,703 presenters, 1,011 presentations, and 7,300 attendees!


The Case for Evaluation
While many nonprofits have limited evaluation resources available, there is more and more pressure to produce data showing program effectiveness at nonprofits (for example, Bill Gates' emphasis on monitoring and evaluation in his recent annual letter).

Big Themes in the Field of Evaluation

  • Data visualization, which uses inspiring graphics and software, to help readers better understand evaluation data
  • Evaluating education reform
  • Culturally competent (respecting and understanding the cultural background of participants) and participatory evaluation (including program staff and participants in the design, implementation, and reporting of the evaluation)

What Did We Learn?

We learned a lot! First, we learned how easy it can be to connect with strangers when you're united by common interests and a shared professional language. Even the biggest thought leaders in the field of evaluation are approachable and willing to share their experiences. Second, we realized that evaluators are fun. The people we met were thoughtful and passionate about their work, with an endearing geek-chic flair! Third, we learned that many of the most respected international organizations are struggling with how to measure effectiveness in a complex world. Finally, it became clear to us that evaluation is still coming into its own. There are many opportunities to make significant contributions.

We are lucky to work at JF&CS, an agency that is ahead of the learning curve in recognizing the need for a robust in-house evaluation capacity as we adapt to a changing nonprofit environment.

Rachel AlbertRachel Albert directs the Performance and Quality Management department at JF&CS. Her background is in business and social work. Prior to joining the agency, Rachel worked as a strategic planning consultant to nonprofits.

Laura Beals, PhD is the Senior Program Evaluator in the Performance and Quality Management department. Laura completed her MA and PhD at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University.