Content type
Practice guide

August 2015

Program evaluations assist organisations to plan, develop, and improve their programs, with the aim of improving outcomes for clients (Alston & Bowles, 2003).

This snapshot of empowerment evaluation is one of a series of CFCA resources on evaluation. For further information about other evaluation approaches and evaluation in general, see CFCA's research and evaluation resources.

What is empowerment evaluation?

Empowerment evaluation is more a set of principles that guide the evaluation at every stage, rather than a research method. These principles are outlined in Box 1. The model aims to create a sense of ownership to ensure program outcomes will actually be beneficial for participants (Campbell et al., 2004; Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005; Secret, Jordan, & Ford, 1999). The approach is drawn from the participatory or collaborative field of evaluation and seeks to involve all stakeholders (i.e., evaluators, management, practitioners, participants, and the community) in the evaluation process.

Box 1: Principles underlying empowerment evaluation

  • Improvement
  • Community ownership
  • Inclusion
  • Democratic participation
  • Social justice
  • Community knowledge
  • Evidence based strategies
  • Capacity building
  • Organisational learning
  • Accountability

Source: Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005.

Empowerment evaluation situates control of the evaluation with the community. Evaluators must make an effort to include stakeholders in a democratic way at every stage of the process. For example, evidence and data should be collected and analysed by stakeholders, even if this process is more laborious, as this helps to build capacity and learning, and improves internal and external organisational accountability (Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005).

Empowerment evaluation fosters a sense of ownership and supports organisations to be learning organisations which has been found to produce results that are more relevant for program improvement and more likely to be integrated into improved practices (Campbell et al., 2004; Greene, 2006).

Similarities with other participatory evaluation methods

Empowerment evaluation is similar to other participatory approaches to evaluation such as participatory action research (PAR). However where PAR seeks to primarily involve stakeholders, empowerment evaluation also aims to create a sense of ownership (Campbell et al., 2004; Secret et al., 1999). In other words, "the focus is on helping people to help themselves" (Fetterman, 1994, as cited in Secret et al.,1999, p. 121).

The intent to transfer research evaluation knowledge from the researcher-expert to program stakeholders for the explicit and ongoing use and benefit of the programs serving disenfranchised populations is a major distinction between empowerment evaluation and other collaborative or participatory models. (Secret et al., 1999, p. 121)

Empowerment evaluation, like PAR, is also a cyclical process of reflection and continuous improvement (Owen, 2006; Rogers & Williams, 2006). It is this cyclical focus, as well as the inclusion and shift of power from the evaluator to the participants and practitioners, which differentiates empowerment evaluation from traditional evaluation methods.

When should empowerment evaluation be used?

Empowerment evaluation aims to build capacity and to link evaluation results to political action (Campbell et al., 2004; Secret et al., 1999). For this reason, the approach is particularly suited to social justice programs working with oppressed people, especially where the aim is to increase self-determination and create positive change (Greene, 2006). For example, programs that work with Indigenous peoples, CALD groups, and people who have experienced family violence or sexual assault.

Empowerment evaluation is also useful, and often highly appropriate, where practitioners hold unique knowledge. For example, practitioners who work with people who have experienced family violence or sexual assault will have expertise in respecting and guarding the safety and confidentiality of participants (Campbell et al., 2004).

For some programs, it may be that the empowerment of practitioners is also required, in which case empowerment evaluation would be helpful (Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2011) 

Strengths of empowerment evaluation

While there a number of benefits of an empowerment evaluation, a key strength is that once implemented, the model can be maintained and modified by the agency with minimal dependence on (often expensive) external experts (Campbell et al,. 2004; Secret et al., 1999).

Empowerment evaluation also focuses on skill building, which may lead to greater capacity for staff to not only monitor and evaluate programs, but to also present this data to effect improvements and even attract funding to agency programs (Fitzpatrick et al., 2011; Secret et al., 1999).

Criticisms of empowerment evaluation

Criticisms of empowerment evaluation include that the process is resource and time intensive for organisations (Campbell et al., 2004; Secret et al., 1999).

Other commentators have also suggested that empowerment evaluation is more a method of teaching people about evaluation than an evaluation itself (see Scriven, 1997, for a discussion).

The empowerment evaluation process

The role of the evaluator

As with other participatory methods, evaluators are facilitators rather than an authority; their role is to guide stakeholders through the process of the evaluation (Abma, 2006; Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005). The evaluator teaches or trains stakeholders to conduct their own evaluation. They then continue to assist in the process by providing guidance, support and mentorship to define program goals and find practical ways to meet these goals. Evaluators may also help to raise awareness of the social issue/s targeted by the program by disseminating the results of the evaluation via public forums and policy channels (Campbell et al., 2004; Secret et al., 1999).

Impact of empowerment evaluation on stakeholders

Stakeholders may feel a sense of "illumination" as a result of actually conducting the evaluation: the process forces them to consider the program, and their role in it, from differing perspectives. It may also help stakeholders to integrate meaningful and useful measures of program performance more easily and successfully in their everyday processes (Campbell et al., 2004; Secret et al., 1999).

This approach desensitizes and demystifies evaluation and ideally helps organizations internalize evaluation principles and practices, making evaluation an integral part of program planning. (Fetterman, 1996 as cited in Campbell et al., 2004, p. 252)

This personal investment in measuring and improving program practices may improve motivation for evaluation and help to overcome some of the common obstacles. These can include distrust of the process, fear of the impact of the evaluation on the program, and poor data collection due to lack of understanding (Secret et al., 1999).

Further resources

  • Empowerment Evaluation Principles in Practice, edited by David M. Fetterman and Abraham Wandersman (2005) New York: Guildford Press.
  • The SAGE Handbook of Evaluation - Chapter 5: Evaluation, Democracy and Social Change, by Jennifer C. Greene (2006) London: SAGE.
  • Program Evaluation: Forms and Approaches  - Chapter 11: Interactive Evaluation, by John M. Owen (2006) Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  • Program Evaluation: Alternative Approaches and Practical Guidelines - Chapter 8: Participant-Oriented Evaluation Approaches, by Jody L. Fitzpatrick, James R. Sanders, & Blaine R. Worthen (2011) New Jersey, US: Pearson Education (4th ed.).


  • Abma, T. A. (2006). The social relations of evaluation, In I. F. Shaw, J. C. Greene, & M. M. Mark,(Eds), The SAGE handbook of evaluation (Chapter 8).London: SAGE.
  • Alston, M., & Bowles, W. (2003). Research for social workers (2nd ed.). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  • Campell, R., Dorey, H., Naegeli, M., Grubstein, L. K., Bennett, K .K., Bonter, F., Smith, P. K. et al. (2004). An empowerment evaluation model for sexual assault programs: Empirical evidence of effectiveness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 34(3/4), 251-262.
  • Fetterman, D. M., & Wandersman, A. (Eds) (2005). Empowerment evaluation principles in practice. New York: Guildford Press.
  • Fitzpatrick, J. L., Sanders, J. R. & Worthen, B. R. (2011). Program evaluation: Alternative approaches and practical guidelines (4th ed.). New Jersey, US: Pearson Education.
  • Greene, J. C. (2006). Evaluation, democracy and social change,In I. F. Shaw, J. C. Greene, & M. M. Mark,(Eds), The SAGE handbook of evaluation (Chapter 5).London: SAGE
  • Owen, J. M. (2006). Program evaluation: forms and approaches (3rd ed.).Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  • Rogers, P., & Williams, B. (2006). Evaluation for practice improvement and organizational learning, In I. F. Shaw, J. C. Greene, & M. M. Mark,(Eds), The SAGE handbook of evaluation (Chapter 3).London: SAGE
  • Scriven, M. (1997). Truth and objectivity in evaluation, In E. Chelimsky & W.R. Shadish (Eds), Evaluation for the 21st Century, a Handbook (pp. 477-500). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
  • Secret, M., Jordan, A., & Ford, J. (1999). Empowerment evaluation as a social work strategy. Health and Social Work, 24(2),120-127.

This paper was developed and written by Kate Rosier, consultant, with Shaun Lohoar, Sharnee Moore and Elly Robinson, CFCA information exchange.

The feature image is by Biocat, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.