Participatory design and evaluation is a great way to engage community members meaningfully and authentically in the work of social change. It’s an approach that is used to elevate community voice into the design, data and decision-making process.

If you’ve ever heard of, or participated in, a participatory design and evaluation activity, you are probably aware that there are hundreds of tools to choose from. Tools like photo voice, community mapping, knowledge bag, solutions tree — all great tools when used in the ideal context and setting. So how do we determine the right tool to use? Here are some guiding questions to help you get started.


Questions to Consider Before Choosing Your Participatory Evaluation Activity

1. WHAT do you want to learn?

What insights are you trying to glean? We will also refer to this as your learning question. A learning question is simply a question you have about your program, initiative, or community that you can answer through data. Perhaps you want to identify how a program impacted the intended knowledge, attitudes, or skills within a community. Or maybe you want to understand a community’s perspective around a specific topic.



In the western Colorado town of Olathe, an organization of community members has been working together to elevate the voices of their community and collectively create a healthier future for themselves and their families. As part of one of their projects, the organization wanted to learn about the impacts of the new 2020-2021 school learning plan (as a result of COVID-19) on family household. They developed a learning question that asked, “How is the new plan for learning in schools affecting Olathe households?”


Establishing clear learning question can direct the activity type, budget and timeline for your activity. It can also keep your scope from expanding or drifting.


2. WHO is your target population?

A clear and concise target will narrow and focus the activity’s scope. More importantly, it will build connection and trust. By defining a specific audience, you are able to speak directly to that audience, keep conversations relevant, and focus on addressing what matters to them.

Once you’ve thought about who your target population is, then you can start to think about the type of activity that will harness the most engagement from them, again, focusing on their needs and interests. For example, would the group be more engaged in a visual activity, written activity, or oral activity? Will the activity be hosted online or in-person?

This is also a critical time to think about accessibility. Which channels can best reach the different community members, and do they all have the necessary access? Examples of barriers could be transportation (for in-person events), internet access (for online events), school, work, child care, language, and literacy.

Threaded throughout all of this, think about whose voices need to be elevated, and whose voices have been historically unheard.


3. What LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION do you AND the group want?

Ask yourself, why do you want to do a participatory evaluation activity? The International Association for Public Participation has developed a Spectrum of Public Participation that was designed to help select the level of engagement in the public participation process. At one end of the spectrum is inform and at the other end of the spectrum is empower.  Is the purpose of your community activity to provide community members with information to raise awareness around a specific topic or solutions? Or is the purpose of your community activity to engage community members in making a decision that will affect their lives? Defining your purpose will largely influence the type of activity you choose, however it’s important to note that many tools can be used for varying levels of participation depending on the agreed purpose.







To provide community with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.

To obtain community’s feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.

To work directly with the community throughout the process to ensure that their concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.

To partner with the community in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.

To place final decision making in the hands of the community.


“Here’s what’s happening”

“Here’s some options, what do you think?”

“Here’s a problem, what ideas do you have?”

“Let’s work together to solve this problem”

“You care about this issue and are leading an initiative; How can we support you?”

Table adapted from the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum