Bringing It All: Building Stronger, More Equitable Evidence Relies on Skills Beyond Data and Evidence

By Gabriel Rhoads
November 17, 2023

In past lives, members of our team have held many different roles. Sure, we have held roles at evaluation firms, foundations, nonprofits, and school districts. But we are also proud of the time we have spent in hospitality, retail, and in wholly different fields such as mediation and dispute resolution. 

We have found that these unrelated roles have much to teach us about the way we do our technical work. Our work is not just about data and evidence — it is about people and their relationship with data and evidence in their work and lives. And these past experiences help us do this in alignment with our values and relationship management principles (which we touch on at the end of this blog). This plays out in many ways – here I touch on three reflections that have been top of mind.

Setting the Table

Many of us have worked in hospitality. In his book Setting the Table (I highly recommend it!), Danny Meyer helps aspiring restaurateurs understand the importance of “enlightened hospitality,” or placing a premium on how you make people feel. When done right, a team takes care of its employees, community, suppliers, and other stakeholders, which in turn elevates the guest experience. Meyer recommends many things that support this spirit of hospitality: working hard on internal culture to support how we serve others, working on both technical and emotional skills, and building skill in anticipating the needs of those who you serve. Our team was moved by a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that talks about the dramatization of this type of work in a popular television series: ‘The Bear’ Should Be Required Viewing for the Nonprofit World

Thinking holistically about hospitality – not just to our nonprofit, philanthropic, and district partners – but also their community and stakeholders, helps us create a brave space for the folks we work with to engage in the work. And this work can be tough! A recent nonprofit partner was reflecting that “we may have to help our affiliates understand that we don’t have the data we thought we did about the effectiveness of our program.” That type of organizational change and evolution can be scary and challenging. It is up to our team to provide the hospitality to host partners through those tough moments so we can together forge a path forward.  

Understanding Interests

I was an Ombudsman and a court-appointed mediator in a past life. This may seem like an unrelated field, but has many applications to the work of data and evidence. Even in the cordial field of data and evidence, there are pain points in relationships between evaluators and nonprofits. For example, unexpected or disappointing results can upend a researcher’s plans for the data, or a nonprofit’s ability to fundraise around outcomes. The challenges or limitations of evaluation methods may mean an inability to gain the most hoped-for information. Or there may be tensions around what claims can legitimately be made from research results. To navigate these challenges, intentional relationship building is key. To that end, we frequently draw on classic negotiation principles developed by William Ury and Roger Fisher in their seminal book, “Getting to Yes.” (I highly recommend it too!) The authors offer a method of principled negotiation that is designed to help people reach mutually beneficial agreements, rather than unintentionally falling into an adversarial approach.

One of the main principles of the book is to recognize that everyone brings interests (not just positions) to the table. This means acknowledging that evaluators, nonprofits, funders, community, and other stakeholders all have their own goals, aspirations, and concerns that need to be addressed. For example, evaluators may be interested in publication, reputation, and livelihood, nonprofits may be interested in effectiveness, sustainability and communicating to funders, and communities may be interested not just in their needs being met, but in a way that meets with their expectations. By clearly stating your own interests and recognizing those of others, you can have conversations that focus on the things that matter and find solutions that address everyone’s interests and promote shared success. In the context of equity, it’s important to consider the interests of all stakeholders, recognizing power dynamics at play and ensuring that the interests of historically marginalized communities are centered in the evaluation process – all of which is fundamental to mediation and interest-based thinking

Focusing on Needs

Beyond hospitality and mediation, retail certainly has much to teach us about focusing on our partners and staying flexible. Of course, the goal for retail businesses is to make sales and generate revenue. But doing so successfully requires caring about and listening to the people they serve and being responsive to customer needs. Being customer-focused is often cited as one of the most important principles in retail. It has a direct relationship to customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention – but more importantly, a customer-focused approach ensures that shoppers feel valued and understood. Centering our partners and adapting to their needs is critical, but this is hard work, because context is always shifting for our nonprofit and philanthropic partners! No matter how customer responsive we are, it is always possible to get things wrong. 

One principle shared across retail and negotiation is to develop our abilities to be able to recognize problems and be able to pause and reground when they arise. This means being willing to take a step back and reassess the situation, rather than pushing forward in a way that could lead to conflict. This is also true of hospitality, where Meyer notes that mistakes will happen, but they provide opportunities to show true hospitality. How we recover from a mistake or a shift can often leave a more lasting impression than the mistake itself.

These reflections show up in our work, and are embedded in our values which ground us, and our relationship management principles, which guide how we intend to show up. 

Our Relationship Management Principles recognize that the nature of our work will require the need to be critical friends to each other, sharing constructive, candid, and consistent feedback. We work together in a way that recognizes the evolving and collaborative nature of our engagements, with frequent communication and opportunities for feedback. In our work, we:

  • Seek Partnership:​​ While we may bring expertise, we are not the experts; the people in the community and doing the work are experts, we are all co-learners and co-developers.
  • Add Value, Own the Outcome:​​ Regardless of role or position, we do what it takes to speak up, engage, and advance the work. We seek to make good.
  • Listen, Learn, and Follow Up Rapidly​​: We believe there is no other way to be trusted.
  • Consistently SWAP: Tied to our values, we seek to be Smart, Warm, Approachable, and Productive – and while we recognize that sometimes it is not possible to be all at the same time, we aim for this as the overall impression our partnership engenders. 

We were not thinking about past work in other fields when we developed our principles above, but it is clear to see the connection to all of the other experiences we draw from. We invite those we work with to bring all of the experiences that have formed their values and principles as well!