An Ecological Understanding of Evaluation Use

Evaluations are supposed to be useful. For decades, studies have explored whether and how evaluations are used. Is there anything new to say now? We think so.

This case study illustrates the parameters of use (e.g., for whom? when? how?), as well as what constituted the use of the evaluation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) program Active for Life®: Increasing Physical Activity Levels in Adults Age 50 and Older. RWJF commissioned the University of South Carolina Prevention Research Center to conduct an external process and outcome evaluation of Active for Life from 2003 to 2007.

The authors found that the Active for Life evaluation was used extensively by diverse stakeholders. They uncovered sequential patterns of evaluation use that they call "threads" and leveraged use of evaluation-related knowledge across time and contexts. The findings led the authors to develop The Ecological Model of Evaluation Use, a model to frame case study findings on the effort of valuing in multiple contexts.

This report seeks to be helpful not only to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other foundations, but more broadly to the fields of evaluation, aging, physical activity and public health in understanding what evaluation use looks like in context and how it can be facilitated. The community use of evaluation may have particular interest for those engaged in community-based participatory research; the evidence-based program link to evaluation may have particular interest for policy-makers and researchers; the ecological understanding of evaluation use adds a complementary approach to familiar categories in the study of evaluation use.