Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas: Evaluation in disruptive times

Published on 18/11/2016

These are disruptive times. Events on the other side of the world affect public policies at home. New technology changes the way we communicate, work and live. Our values and cultural rules evolve at a relentless rate. Leading and managing non-profit organizations is less like stewarding a well-oiled machine and a lot more like white water rafting. This type of continual disruption requires non-profit organizations to excel at adaptive leadership. They must drop practices that no longer “fit” the evolving context, experiment with new – sometimes multiple – opportunities that appear out of the blue, and continually adapt – rather than freeze – even the most effective models and practices. Unfortunately, many traditional ideas and practices of evaluation weaken, rather than strengthen, non-profit organizations’ ability to navigate and thrive in disruption. This needs to change.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Use evaluation to support adaptive approaches to tackle tough issues rather than encourage fidelity to the original plan and hoped for results.
  2. Acknowledge that “best practice” is anti-innovation.
  3. Admit that innovation is ahead of the evidence curve.
  4. Embrace a practical standard for “robust” evaluation: i.e., triangulation of methods, real time data, good sense-making and a realistic burden of proof.
  5. Dramatically raise the bar on “intelligent” failure.


  1. The SIG Knowledge Hub provides a good introduction to Developmental Evaluation and links to extra resources for those who want more.
  2. Lisbeth Schorr is a well-known advocate for a more practical approach to evaluating initiatives to tackle complex issues and one of the first to make the case for a new “gold standard” in evaluation.
  3. The Better Evaluation website is the most comprehensive and accessible online resource on evaluation methods.
  4. The Center for Evaluation Innovation focuses on developing evaluation methods that are better suited to advocacy, systems change and social innovation that traditional evaluation practices struggle to assess.
  5. The Fail Forward organization in Toronto has a number of practical techniques to support groups identify, make sense of, document and use failure to move their work forward.

Mark Cabaj

President of From Here to There and an Associate of Tamarack

Mark Cabaj is President of the consulting company From Here to There and an Associate of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement. While studying the Solidarity movement in Krakow, Poland, in mid-1989, Mark experienced a variety of tumultuous events that signaled the end of communism in Eastern Europe, and worked as an Investment Advisor in Poland’s Foreign Investment Agency. Back in Canada, Mark was the Coordinator of the Waterloo Region’s Opportunities 2000 project (1997-2000), an initiative that won provincial, national and international awards for its multi-sector approach to poverty reduction. He served briefly as the Executive Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet) and was Vice President of the Tamarack Institute and the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities Canada. Mark’s current focus is on developing practical ways to understand, plan and evaluate efforts to address complex issues. This includes challenges such as neighborhood renewal, poverty and homelessness, community safety, educational achievement and health. He is particularly involved in developing and promoting developmental evaluation, a new approach to assessment which emphasizes real time feedback and learning in emerging, messy and sometimes fast-moving environments. Mark lives in Edmonton with his wife Leann and their children Isaiah and Zoë.