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Three Bridges: Sustaining and Using Bridges

by Nancy Carter, Evaluator

Locals of Halifax-Dartmouth will remember “The Big Lift” project aimed at maintaining and sustaining the MacDonald Bridge – one of two that connect the cities. Reflecting on how we sustain bridges and use them post-construction provides an opportunity to explore the role evaluation plays in supporting established connections. In some cases, bringing people together to make a difference is easy; sustaining the connection can be much more challenging. Physical bridges get eroded and worn down from the weather, natural occurrences and use; other bridges are built but not used as effectively as they could be and become neglected; still others lose their relevance as new methods overcoming barriers are established.

This definition inspires reflection on how a culture of evaluation and learning supports Inspiring Communities (IC) to build sustainable bridges that can weather storms and be adapted as needed to remain useful. There are numerous examples of how IC has used evaluation evidence to consider the bridges that need up-keep or new supports, as well as which bridges no longer useful, or should be passed over to others for maintenance and continued use. Taking a bit of a different twist, in this post I will reflect on how the organization relied on the connections it established among evaluation, learning, and achieving its mission to sustain a culture of evaluation and learning when resources were limited.

“Inspiring Communities found itself with just the opposite challenge when the organization experienced a loss of evaluation resources through an organization-wide restructuring…. In this case the demand for evaluation was high while supply (i.e. human resources) to support the demand were stretched thin.”

In the last post, I discussed Andrea Redmond’s work, an appreciative inquiry into IC’s culture of learning. Recently the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation published a special issue dedicated to the work of John Mayne “a thought leader, practical thinker, bridge builder, and scholar practitioner in the field of evaluation.” An article by Dr. Kaireen Chaytor focused on Mayne’s view on evaluation culture; in it, she reflects on the experience of evaluators attempting to build cultures of evaluation, including Redmond’s findings of her Inspiring Communities case study. Chaytor concludes that linking evaluation approaches and methods to organizational learning and the stated values of the organization fosters a strong culture of evaluation, which Mayne deemed essential for achieving results.

Sustaining and Using Bridges in Action

Evaluation Culture as a Sustaining Factor

As noted in my previous post, as with other organizations, evaluation resources and needs have fluctuated for Inspiring Communities. Limited resources – time, money, people – are a reality for most organizations, resulting in difficult choices to manage the pressure between supply and demand for resources across all aspects of an organization.

Chaytor discusses this supply-demand tension in the context of evaluation, noting that when both resources for evaluation and use of evaluation is high “life is good” (p. 433); she further reflects that it is especially common to see high levels of evaluation expertise (supply), but little use of evaluation (demand) by organizational leaders. This is a dangerous place for organizations, because arguably the demand for evaluation as valued tool to support the organization in achieving its mission can be harder to establish than the expertise needed to meet the demand.

However, Inspiring Communities found itself with just the opposite challenge when the organization experienced a loss of evaluation resources through an organization-wide restructuring (see A Year of Transforming, IC’s 2022 Impact Report, pages 2-3). The loss was felt across Inspiring Communities because of the strong evaluation and learning culture that had been established. In this case the demand for evaluation was high while supply (i.e. human resources) to support the demand were stretched thin.

Innovating evaluation

Innovation was necessary to maintain and support the highly valued culture of evaluation and learning. Fortunately, the strong culture would sustain Inspiring Communities through this storm. To cope with the challenge, IC centralized its evaluation function to focus on supporting the development of an evaluation and learning system that would align with the restructured organization while maintaining evaluation and learning as a core value. Evaluation became a central component of an impact and strategic clarity initiative the organization invested in to support the restructuring process. This ensured that evaluation would be integrated in the organization as it evolved and found new footing. 

Meanwhile, IC’s existing programs and services all had evaluation plans, guidelines, tools and learning resources in place, which would continue to be used to support evaluation while the organization-wide evaluation framework was adapted. Further, staff were well versed in key evaluation activities that had supported the organization. To elaborate, key evaluation questions had been established and data collection, analysis and a reporting process were in place. Team members engaged in purposeful and regular reflection to support Developmental Evaluation and openly shared their learning and knowledge about evaluation across program areas in an effort to educate new employees and contractors on evaluation, learning and its role in Inspiring Communities. For example, teams shared their evaluation processes and results with each other through organization-wide internal learning sessions. They discussed challenges they encountered with evaluation, shared their approach to overcoming them and reflected together on how these challenges might be addressed in the future.

In conclusion, IC relied on its well-established bridge between evaluation, learning and the effective achievement of outcomes to avoid a loss in the culture of evaluation and learning that Canadian evaluation thought leaders agree would be difficult to rebuild. As a member of the Canadian evaluation community, this is another example of IC living up to its name, as it is truly an ‘Inspiring’ example of how a strong culture of evaluation is connected to organizational resilience and sustainability.

In my next post, I reflect on another meaning of bridges commonly used in seafaring contexts: the Ship’s Bridge, or the elevated platform from which the captain steers and navigates the ship’s voyage.


Building Evaluation Culture—The Missing Link, Kaireen Chaytor. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation (2023) 37:3, 422-438

Read the Blog Series, Three Bridges

Images Used

Bridge photo by Thiago Matos: https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-walking-on-bridge-2761224/

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