Over the past decade, researchers and evaluators of community-based programs and policies have increasingly recognized the value of lived experience as expertise and evidence and have expanded use of community-engaged research methods (CEM). They acknowledge that to understand local needs, challenges, and opportunities, it’s essential to include the people most affected by local interventions in the research and evaluation process. Doing so can make research studies and program evaluations more equitable.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movement shed a glaring light on the structural racism baked into every aspect of our society. They also highlighted the necessity and value of lifting up community voices. Earlier this year, President Biden reinforced its importance when he issued an executive order that named community engagement as a key method for advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities, suggesting that interest in community-engaged methods will continue to grow.

The Urban Institute’s Family-Centered Community Change (FCCC) evaluation evolved along with the CEM field. Our team recently wrapped up a seven-year evaluation of two-generation service partnerships—which aim to help families move out of poverty though serving both parents and children—in three high-poverty neighborhoods of color across the country. Over the course of the evaluation, we increasingly engaged community members, adapting as we went based on our successes and challenges. Here are some key lessons on elevating community voice in community-based evaluations.

  1. Prioritize community engagement when selecting program and evaluation grantees.
  2. Solidify a common understanding of and commitment to community engagement among stakeholders in both evaluation and programming throughout all phases of the work.
  3. Foster a safe space for feedback by making clear commitments about how shared decisionmaking will work, and follow through on these commitments.
  4. Build relationships to share ownership and decisionmaking among a diverse set of community stakeholders, particularly program participants, at the beginning and throughout the work.
  5. Ensure local and outside stakeholders have the knowledge and skills to foster engagement and partnership.
  6. Establish expectations for sharing information and products with all evaluation partners to keep them engaged.
  7. Set initial goals and priorities for community engagement, and establish a process to update those goals and priorities as stakeholder preferences and conditions on the ground change.
  8. Establish a commitment from the funder at the outset to fund community engagement initiative design and evaluation.
  9. Compensate program participants for their time, just as service providers, evaluators, and other professionals are compensated for theirs.

Read the full article about program evaluations by Amelia Coffey at Urban Institute.