It’s Time to Let Go of Tired Narratives about Talent in Evaluation

Social sector conversations about talent often focus on increasing diversity, building skillsets, and improving hiring and management. But to solve tough social problems, we need to let go of tired narratives about talent and work together to dismantle oppression in the evaluation field.

By: Clare Nolan,
Co-founder, Engage R+D

Narratives are important to pay attention to

There’s a lot of talk in the social sector these days about “shifting the narrative” on different social issues. At Engage R+D, for instance, we are currently evaluating efforts to shift narratives about racial equity, incarceration, low-wage work, immigration, and health care. These efforts involve collaboration across diverse actors including organizers, artists, policy analysts, lawyers, funders, and movement-builders. What is it about narratives that draws people from such diverse disciplines together?

A narrative is “a story we tell to make meaning,” that becomes “dominant through repetition, particularly when told about a minority culture through the lens of the ruling culture.” Narratives are important for a number of reasons. For one thing, they have power. They influence how we process complex information and make decisions, how we understand history and current events, and how we respond to social norms.

Narratives can also be damaging, used to justify the status quo and perpetuate “harmful beliefs about why inequities exist, and what we can or should do about them.” Finally, narratives can be invisible, influencing our thoughts and actions in unnoticed ways. As john a. powell observed, “We are so deeply immersed in our narrative or in our context, that we’re not aware that it’s even a context. We think it’s just reality.”

In summary, there is growing awareness of the role narratives play in supporting oppression and the need to dismantle and re-make them to help advance equity and racial justice.

Narratives also exist about talent

The killing of George Floyd and the events of recent weeks have brought this home in myriad ways. The term systemic racism is no longer just the parlance of activists and academics; it is becoming a part of everyday social and political vocabulary. More people are beginning to see and understand the ways that systems of oppression play out in our health, economic, and criminal justice systems and to take action on deep-rooted injustices. Likewise, those of us working in evaluation need to examine ways in which systemic racism manifests in the work we do and in who is working in our field. We must move beyond performative expressions of solidarity and do the hard work needed to dismantle harmful practices.

It has been refreshing to see growing recognition of the importance of transforming the fields of philanthropy and evaluation so they are more inclusive of people who contribute lived experiences and diverse perspectives, even before the current crises. Foundations are “increasingly acting on the belief that a less diverse sector in terms of people, organizations, and ideas jeopardizes the overall impact of the entire sector,” as a recent article by Cheryl Dorsey, Peter Kim, and colleagues noted. On Twitter, there’s been another way of putting it with respect to evaluation: #EvalSoWhite.1 One could add to that: #EvalSoStraight, #EvalSoCisgender, #EvalSoAbled, #EvalSoPrivileged, etc.

What does all this have to do with narrative? Leaders like Jara Dean-Coffey, Vidhya Shanker, Cyndi Suarez, Nicky Bowman, and Vu Le have all been writing and thinking about narratives and systemic racism for some time. Their and others’ work has helped me understand how words we use in our field often reflect and reinforce a white racial frame,2 and led me to notice the ways this especially shows up in conversations about talent in evaluation and philanthropy.

Over the past two years, Engage R+D has partnered with several organizations to dig into the oft-lamented “lack of diversity” of the evaluation field. We have been asking ourselves: What ineffective and potentially harmful narratives about talent in evaluation get in the way of effective and equitable solutions? Collectively, Luminare Group, Engage R+D, and the Funder & Evaluator Affinity Network will be releasing a series of papers in the coming months about pipeline programs that provide educational and career support to ethnically diverse evaluators, the experiences of evaluators of color working at philanthropy-serving consulting firms, and what we might to do differently moving forward.

Together, these pieces point to several tired narratives about talent and expertise in our field—narratives we need to dismantle and let go of if we are to truly make progress—not on “diversity” per se, but on making evaluation a stronger tool “for and of equity” as called for by the Equitable Evaluation Initiative. We need to develop new narratives that recognize the broader set of people, organizations, and ideas we should be tapping into to advance equity. What might it look like to do this? Below are some initial ideas based on some of this recent work.

We invite you to consider these and other new narratives needed as you read and comment on the following pieces as they are released in the coming months:

These pieces are intended to spark and contribute to further conversations about what how our field can be a stronger force for equity and racial justice. I am grateful to the many people who engaged in conversation with me about these ideas and this piece and made both better. Thank you, Jara Dean-Coffey, Kelly Hannum, Pilar Mendoza, Fontane Lo, Meg Long, Albertina Lopez, Katherine Lee, Julia Coffman, Tanya Beer, and Mariah Brothe Gantz.

[1] For context, a 2018 survey of AEA members suggests that two-thirds of its evaluator membership is white. Center for Evaluation Innovation’s recent benchmarking report suggests that 60 percent of foundation evaluation and learning staff are white.
[2] Feagin, J. R. (2013). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.