June 8, 2017

Recently, we offered a definition of evaluation as (in part) the application of systematic methods to collect and analyze data that are meaningful and relevant to a given program, service, or initiative. If you thought this sounded a lot like what research aims to do, you are not alone! Evaluation is, in many ways, a form of applied research and there is considerable overlap between the purposes and methods of both evaluation and research.


Our team has a wide range of research experiences and skills that we often use in our evaluation work. After all, both research and evaluation are about using systematic methods to analyze data in order to understand something of interest. Many of us here at Via Evaluation began our careers in the research world. For example, before joining the team at Via, Jessica Weitzel (our current Director of Evaluation and soon to be President) was a Project Director at the University of Buffalo School of Social Work Research Center.

The debate about the differences between research and evaluation still continues in academic journals and publications today, and likely will for some time. Since we at Via are guided by Michael Quinn Patton’s concept of Utilization-focused Evaluation, our distinction between research and evaluation focuses on the differences in the intended purposes and use between the two:

  Research Evaluation
Scope and Questions Defined by scholars in an academic discipline Defined by key stakeholders and primary users of information
Purpose Create “generalizable” knowledge or test specific academic theories Determine effectiveness of a specific program or model
Primary Audience Academics, Government Officials, Policy Makers Program stakeholders (funders, providers, participants, etc.)
Test of Value Contribution to the general academic knowledgebase and publication in academic journals Usefulness to improve program effectiveness

Adapted from: Patton, Michael Quinn (2014). Evaluation Flash Cards: Embedding Evaluative Thinking in Organizational Culture. St. Paul, MN: Otto Bremer Trust, ottobremer.org.

Research is typically conducted by scholars and academics with the aim of producing “generalizable knowledge” that applies to many different people in many different settings. To produce this knowledge, data are collected from sometimes hundreds of thousands of participants over extended periods of time. The primary audience is other academics, government officials, and policy makers that are seeking more broad-based information to establish wide-reaching policies or develop new academic theories and program models. Research is often considered “valuable” when it adds something new to “general” knowledge on a topic and is published in an academic journal or government policy document

(Utilization-focused) Evaluation starts with the end users of the information in mind and defines the scope and questions of the evaluation project with the needs of these users in mind. Evaluation is generally the systematic study of a specific program or model, and examines questions that are important to funders, providers, participants, or other stakeholders. The value of an evaluation is determined by the extent to which it produces valid, meaningful, and useful information that improves a program’s effectiveness or reach.


This is not to say that research and evaluation are always separate activities. In fact, a good evaluation should always use relevant research to help define evaluation questions and methods for collecting and analyzing data. Similarly, good research utilizes the results of evaluations to determine new research questions and generate new knowledge.

The team at Via has a wealth of research experience that we bring to each evaluation client and project. To learn more about how Via evaluation can help your organization make the most of both research and evaluation, contact us today!