An Introduction to Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation

By Nora Murphy Johnson


My Name is Nora Murphy Johnson and I am a co-founder of TerraLuna Collaborative and the Developmental Evaluation Institute. Principles have been the focus of my work for the last six years, starting with my dissertation research which involved working with a collaborative group of leaders in the Twin Cities to develop evidence-based guiding principles to help youth overcome homelessness. That project and my subsequent work has helped me see that much of what gives me hope in the world—much of what inspires me—are the stories about principles-driven people who are working for principles-based change. Principles-focused developmental evaluation is a way I can be supportive of this principles-driven work, hopefully increasing clarity about what is working and why (or why not) and deeping the impact of the work.

What Are Evidence-Based Guiding Principles?

Guiding principles are collectively adopted ideas about how to proceed in the face of complexity. You can think about them as values and beliefs articulated in a way that give direction about what to do and how to work. Evidence-based guiding principles have evidence to support the assertion that they are meaningful and lead to important outcomes.

When Should I Consider Using Evidence-Based Guiding Principles?

Guiding principles are especially useful when collaborators have different capabilities and roles but are working to solve the same intractable problems. Principles provide guidance for action and remind stakeholders of the values they hold in common[1].  They may start as a list at first, a list of principles that are grounded in past evidence about what works, in knowledge gained through experience, and in wisdom. The process of generating evidence may come after the identification of the principles and generating buy-in from the collaborative group.

What Is The Role Of Guiding Principles In Evaluation?

In principles-focused evaluation, principles constitute a distinct evaluand, a specific and unique focus for evaluation. In principles-focused developmental evaluation the principles give direction to the development of the innovation. They provide a shared language, a shared vision for how to do the work, and a creative space that allows each person and organization to adapt with coherence and integrity. When the principles are well-written, meaningful, feasible, and inspirational, they become a powerful unifying factor for the social change work and the developmental evaluation.

How Do I Recognize A Good Guiding Principle When I See It?

Writing principles that are meaningful, feasible, and inspirational is harder than it sounds. Effective principles should be succinct, pointed, and specific enough to provide direction but open enough to be adapted to context. They are grounded in values about what matters, must be interpreted and applied contextually and situationally, require judgment in application, and can be evaluated for both process (was the principle followed?) and results (did the desired outcome get accomplished?)[2]. Michael Quinn Patton created a GUIDE for evaluating principles (Patton, 2017, pg. 38).


Where Can I Learn More About Principles-Focused Development Evaluation?

  1. I’ll be posting about principles-focused evaluation for the remainder of this week so check back for more posts about principles-focused developmental evaluation.
  2. Michael Quinn Patton’s 2017 book about principles-focused evaluation is the first complete book to describe the approach. See the book and order HERE.
  3. Sign-up for future Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation Workshops led by Nora Murphy Johnson. See the TerraLuna events page for more information HERE. Sign-up for Nora’s newsletter on  


[1] Murphy, N. F. (2015). Nine guiding principles to help youth overcome homelessness. Developmental Evaluation Exemplars: Principles in Practice, 63.

[2] Patton, M. Q. (2017). Principles-focused evaluation: The guide. Guilford Publications.

Transcription of Image Chart

EXHIBIT 6.1. GUIDE for Principles

G: Guiding

  • Prescriptive—provides advice and guidance
  • Directional—specifies direction and informs priorities
  • Effectiveness-oriented (active verb wording)—"Do this..." to be effective
  • Distinctive from its opposite or alternative

U: Useful

  • Points toward desired results
  • Describes how to be effective
  • Supports making choices and decisions
  • Utility resides in being interpretable, doable, feasible, and actionable

I: Inspiring

  • Values-based, ethically grounded
  • Meaningful
  • Is Important, evokes a sense of purpose

D: Developmental

  • Context sensitive
  • Complexity adaptable
  • Enduring (not time-bound)

E: Evaluable

  • Can document and judge whether it is followed
  • Can document and judge what results
  • Can determine if it takes you where you want to go