There’s a fine line between research and evaluation, and much has been written on the topic. Research is governed by a plethora of ethics rules. Typical research rules include the requirement to get informed consent from those participating in research, and the need to define how human subjects will be fully informed of the risks and benefits of the research and protected from harm. Assessing the impact of programs operated by community nonprofits often falls into the realm of evaluation rather than research. “Even though evaluation may not be subject to the same strict requirements as research, it’s essential to ensure that the methods you use are transparent and ethical,” said Barbara Floersch, chief of training and curriculum of The Grantsmanship Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
- The ethical management of programs and of program evaluations are a lynchpin of organizational integrity. “If you have questions about an evaluation practice, always seek expert advice,” said Floersch. “But here are a few big-picture considerations to confront when hammering out your evaluation plan.” The elements include:
- Do you need to obtain informed consent? Just because you don’t consider your evaluation plan to be research, doesn’t mean that certain evaluation methods won’t trigger the requirement that you obtain informed consent from participants. When the intent of the evaluation is to improve an established program within your organization, you usually won’t need informed consent. But, if the intent is to generate knowledge by generating hypotheses and testing them, you may need to get informed consent. This can be tricky. When in doubt, seek expert advice.
- Is the evaluation transparent? Whether or not you’re engaged in research, people need to understand the evaluation process in which they’ll participate and to know that there will not be negative repercussions if they opt out.
- Is the evaluation culturally sensitive? The methods you use to assess the program must be a good fit with the culture, language, beliefs, educational levels, sexual orientation, and life experiences of those with whom you’re working.
- Do you maintain confidentiality? Your organization has an obligation to treat each individual’s information with care and to keep it safe from unauthorized use and abuse. The evaluation plan should lay out your approach for protecting confidentiality.
- Will participants be safe? Have you studied the evaluation methods thoroughly to ensure that they cannot result in harm to participants’ mental, physical, social, or economic well-being?
- Will evaluation results be free of bias? Examine evaluation methods to ensure some unintended bias is not built in to the plan. And be sure that those who will gather data, and those who will assess and report on findings will be objective. Vigilance is key. “It’s best practice, and it’s expected,” said Floersch.