Five minutes early and wearing a winning smile, Evaluate for Change’s Jessica Zulawski is instantly recognizable. Over the din at the cafe, I introduced myself and asked her about her friendship with the director of Evaluate for Change, Amanda Babine, and how she got involved in the early days of the company.
“Amanda and I have been friends for while,” she said, and then laughed as she added, “Actually, Facebook just sent me a notification that it is our seven-year ‘friendaversary’.”
Zulawski and Babine initially met in Boston, and then, unbeknownst to each other, moved to New York City to pursue separate projects.
“One day, Amanda reached out to me — knowing I was in a similar line of work as her — and let me know that she was starting a company called Evaluate for Change … she invited me to a launch party to announce that this was a new venture she was pursuing. So I came and I loved the idea; it was [addressing] a lot of things that I felt a lot of frustrations about in my own work,” she said.
Evaluate for Change — or EFC as it is commonly referred to — seeks to empower the social sector from within with workshops and classes on impact evaluation. Before joining EFC as Senior Evaluation Trainer, Zulawski worked as an evaluation specialist in the social sector, mostly “working with education professionals trying to help them make sense of data.”
Something that appealed to Zulawski was EFC’s oft-repeated mantra that they are educators, not consultants.
“Before we were around,” said Zulawski, “ … it was a lot of nonprofits working with consultants, and one of the big problems was that consultants would do the work, hand off the report and leave, without necessarily leaving organizations with the ability to keep picking up the work … which means they would have to re-hire consultants to do updates.”
EFC’s role was always going to be different from that of others around it. “We wanted to create a product that people would really benefit from … As we dug a little deeper into our work we realized that this can’t be something where we work with the client and then leave — they needed a more sustainable solution,” said Zulawski.
Zulawski also pegged the early 90’s as a time of sudden focus on impact, in turn creating space for a company like Evaluate for Change to exist and flourish.
“There was an act passed that many governmental organizations had to start proving their impact. So it was a space in which a lot of social sector organizations really had to play catch up because all of a sudden there was this requirement being imposed on them. Organizations did not necessarily know what to do, or know how to handle it or have the staffing and technical skills to be able to catch up with that. It was a space in which there weren’t many data supports to assist the social sector,” she said.
Apart from the company’s vision itself, Zulawski was also thrilled to find herself working at a start-up. “It’s really awesome, to be completely honest,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a high when you see people responding to something you created.”
Her career is also supported by her friendship with Babine, whom she credits with being daring and willing to jump into new things. Both Zulawski and Babine share a passion for the work they do, and their lifestyles reflect it.
“Amanda and I will just meet each other to discuss data sets, and that’s sort of how our friendship works,” Zulawski laughed.
Since its inception, EFC has gone through and encapsulated many stages: from a single two-hour workshop session, to multiple takes on the idea of renting an evaluator, to its Fellowship programs, to its current Certificate Program, the company is demonstrably light on its feet and committed to its cause. “Next up,” says Zulawski with a measure of excitement, “is the Certificate Program, with which EFC hopes to build a large cohort of people who are savvy social thinker, brilliant minds and data-driven professionals who will further EFC’s mission to empower the social sector.”
Above all, EFC will continue to redefine what data is and what data looks like. Zulawski hopes to continue contributing to the social sector in a way that makes data the norm.
She concluded with a simple thought: “You know, data doesn’t have to be this scary and dehumanizing thing. It’s a way to tell a human story.”
Fall 2017 Communications Intern
Shreya is a third-year Creative Writing student at New York University Abu Dhabi with a particular passion for storytelling. Post-graduation, she plans to pursue a career in creative strategy and copywriting, with a focus on nonprofit organizations. She loves traveling — having lived, studied and worked in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Mumbai and New York City. When she is not having crises over which travel selfie is most Instagram-worthy, she is dreaming about tacos in my self-made napping pad.