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Evaluating Networks: Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bath Water

By Kim Ammann Howard

While the importance of networks to advance social change seems well accepted, how to assess their effectiveness is not. In a recent webinar I held on cultivating networks with Claire Reinelt from the Leadership Learning Community and Melanie Moore from See Change, many participants asked questions about measurement. How do we know if the networks have an impact? What is the best way to measure networks? How do we know how much the network contributes to desired outcomes relative to grants, technical assistance or other supports? Network mapping and network assessments are some of the promising new tools that can help us answer these evaluation questions and also serve an equally important purpose of informing network implementation.

Evaluating networks may seem relatively new, but it is important not to overlook the application of good, familiar evaluation practices. Network evaluation questions that focus on “who, what, where, when, why and how” (e.g., how is the network used to reach desired goals, to what extent are they being realized) still benefit from clearly articulated theories of change, corresponding evaluation questions and traditional data collection methods.

Too often the complex nature of networks provokes the search for a new and equally complex evaluation strategy, which can yield data with limited utility (e.g., inability to separate the contribution of network impact from other supports, lack of information about the processes and context). These limitations commonly lead observers to question whether evaluation resources are used effectively, which can negatively impact future considerations about evaluation. As we continue to move forward with the development of new and exciting evaluation tools, let us remember to not throw out the baby with the bath water.