The global COVID-19 pandemic brought many aspects of life and work to a halt. Fortunately, many of our community partners were able to continue the good work they do but under different circumstances which meant we, as their trusted partners, had to step up and support their efforts to measure the work they do in new and innovative ways.
Much of the data collection methods evaluators rely on tend to occur in person, such as focus groups, interviews, observations, and even surveying. Many of these methods of course are adaptable to a virtual world but we have long valued the relationship we can build in a short face to face interaction that can garner higher or more detailed response rates. Something the pandemic taught us is that the virtual formats of these methods can be just as valuable, if not more so.
The most evident example of this was for clients seeking community feedback and engagement through focus groups. Typically, what we find to be one of the biggest frustrations when coordinating focus groups is finding enough participants. Community members have jobs, and children, and a million things that are more pressing than finding time to commute and contribute to a focus group that may be offering a paltry incentive. But what we learned by hosting focus groups over Zoom or other virtual platforms is that engagement increased. We were able to easily engage with more diverse communities and conduct groups in more languages, at different times, and in more regions than we ever had before; many of our restraints were simply eliminated. It was also easier for many of our participants to attend; from teens to older adults they did not have to worry about finding transportation or childcare. But there are clear limitations to virtual engagement as well; never has the digital divide been clearer, particularly for low income, rural, and minority communities.
There is, currently, no perfect solution to ensuring engagement among community members, let alone hard to reach populations. But what the pandemic taught us is that the limitations we had come to view as inherent and therefore acceptable are simple to overcome in the face of something greater and that we should continue to evaluate our own methods to improve how we help the helpers of our community.