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Developmental Evaluation for Social Justice: An Overview

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

In a world teeming with challenges in the quest for social justice, the conventional ways of evaluating impact and progress do not always capture the nuances of grassroots change and systemic shifts. In initiatives that are pioneering, adaptive, and in continuous flux, we require a more responsive lens to understand their trajectory and impact. Enter Developmental Evaluation (DE) — an approach tailor-made for the changemakers among us.

What is Developmental Evaluation?

At its core, Developmental Evaluation is an evaluation approach for those navigating the complex terrains of social justice work. It offers a flexible and iterative means to assess the ebb and flow of innovative undertakings. Rather than rigidly gauging the success or failure of an endeavor, DE delves deeper, aiming to support meaningful adaptation and shed light on the nuances of how and why an initiative evolves and matures in its unique context.

Developmental Evaluation (DE) emerged as a distinct approach to evaluation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, responding to the growing realization that traditional evaluation methods were not always equipped to assess innovative, emergent, and adaptive initiatives. Dr. Michael Quinn Patton, a key figure in the field of evaluation, pioneered and formalized the principles and practices of DE. In his foundational works, Patton emphasized the importance of tailoring evaluations to the complexities and dynamics of real-world situations, especially in environments characterized by uncertainty and rapid change. Over time, as more practitioners began to see the value in this approach, DE gained traction and became recognized as a vital tool, especially in sectors like social innovation, public health, and community development. The evolution of DE represents a broader shift in evaluation thinking, moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to more context-sensitive, adaptive, and learning-oriented methods.

Key Principles of Developmental Evaluation for Social Justice

While Dr. Michael Quinn Patton laid the groundwork for DE, emphasizing its adaptability in the face of complex, ever-evolving projects, the subsequent contributions by Nan Wehipeihana, Kate McKegg, and Nora represent an essential step toward ensuring social justice remains at the core of developmental evaluation efforts. By modifying Patton’s principles, they recognized the need for a more nuanced, equity-centered approach, especially when navigating complex social ecosystems. These principles are:


Develops the innovation and evaluation together — interwoven, interdependent, iterative, and co-created — so that developmental evaluation becomes part of the change process.

Innovation Niche.

Illuminates how the change is new, novel, or adapts and interprets old wisdom to new contexts.

Systems Thinking.

Thinks systemically throughout, understanding interrelationships, engaging with contrasting perspectives, and reflecting ethically on boundaries of the social system that the innovation and evaluation are being developed within.

Complexity Concepts.

Interprets development through a complexity lens, recognising that situations are often uncertain, emergent and dynamic, and evaluation is responsive to this reality.

Utilization-Focused Evaluation.

Pays attention to intended use by intended users from beginning to end, facilitating the evaluation progress to ensure utility and actual use.

DE for Social Justice Purpose.

Illuminates, informs and supports what is being developed and how it addresses the root causes of systemic inequities, identifying the implications and consequences of what is being developed.

Timely and Culturally Appropriate Feedback.

Informs ongoing adaptation as needs, findings, and insights emerge, responding to the natural rhythms and cultural norms of the context the development and evaluation are happening within.

Evaluation Rigour.

Asks probing evaluation questions; thinks and engages evaluatively; questions assumptions; applies evaluation logic; uses appropriate methods; synthesises and makes meaning from a values inspired framework and stays empirically grounded.

How is DE Different from Other Evaluation Purposes?

While both formative evaluation and DE are designed to improve programs, formative evaluations generally operate within a pre-set framework with predetermined outcomes. DE, on the other hand, helps shape the framework and outcomes as the initiative evolves. Summative evaluations judge the overall effectiveness of a program. DE is less about judgment and more about guiding and informing development.

Benefits of Developmental Evaluation

Many DE practitioners, myself included, find tremendous benefit in using a DE approach to evaluation social justice-oriented initiatives.

  • Promotes Flexibility: DE allows organizations to pivot their approach based on what’s working and what’s not, promoting agility in the face of uncertainty.

  • Informs Decision-making: Continuous feedback loops mean that decision-makers are better informed and can act promptly.

  • Builds Capacity: By its very nature, DE fosters a culture of learning, helping organizations and individuals better navigate complex challenges.

Challenges and Considerations

Like any approach, DE is not without its challenges. At the very least, it requires:

  • A commitment to continuous learning and adaptability, which might be a cultural shift for some organizations.

  • A skilled developmental evaluator who understands the nuances of the approach and can effectively facilitate learning.

  • Buy-in from stakeholders as the approach is less about definitive outcomes and more about the journey of development.

How This Impacts My Role as an Evaluator

As an evaluator, DE lets me work from the more appropriate place of “partner”, rather than “expert”. In many ways, this goes against my early training as a researcher, training that prioritized a stance of objectivity and distance.

A “partner” recognizes that they are part of a continuously evolving landscape. They know that while their knowledge is deep in some areas, they know nothing in places where others’ relevant knowledge and experience run deep. A “partner” remains open to new insights, understanding that the landscape of information and understanding is always shifting.

The term “partner” inherently implies collaboration. It fosters the idea of working together towards a common goal, emphasizing the importance of collective intelligence and mutual respect over individual dominance. This mirrors how the world actually operates. Rarely are issues one-dimensional; they are multifaceted and require multi-dimensial understanding and approaches that only diverse groups of collaborators can provide.

Seeing myself as a partner, and working hard to convey that this is truly my intent, has helped me build trust with my partners in developmental evaluation. People are more likely to trust someone who acknowledges the limits of their knowledge and is open to feedback, collaboration, and alternative viewpoints. This is crucial for building and maintaining strong professional and personal relationships.

And, let’s be honest, if someone doesn’t trust me, why would they disclose that which is most dear and fragile? And if they can’t or don’t share that which is most dear and fragile, how likely are we to get to the heart of what matters most in the work? And if we don’t get to the heart of the work, why are we doing it at all?

Closing Thoughts

Developmental Evaluation, with its focus on real-time learning and adaptability, offers a potent tool for innovators navigating uncharted territories. By understanding and embracing this approach, organizations can foster a culture of continuous improvement and effectively navigate the complexities of modern-day challenges. This may not always be a comfortable shift for evaluators and their partners — but the discomfort is worth it if you are serious about working towards social justice through evaluation.


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