5 Expert Secrets to Make Your Project Look, Sound and Feel Great
Besides replying to emails and exchanging thoughts on the sandwich you ate at the latest coffee break, chances are that your daily schedule is swamped with routine reporting and bragging about your achievements. Believe it or not, this is monitoring and evaluation — the Notorious M.&.E. It is the heart and soul of what we do as professionals in the civil society sector, and yet no one really understands it.
M+E is more than a beautiful report and a happy donor. Good M+E, if you actually look through the data that’s been laying on a dusty shelf in your office, can actually help you and your team create stunning projects that meet the needs of people in Central Asia and inspire real change.
Just three years ago, I knew nothing about logical frameworks, theories of change or results-based monitoring. I never thought that I would become an M+E specialist. At times it’s incredibly frustrating. The fact is that we live in a results-driven world. We are all dealing with increasing pressure for outcomes and value for money; made worse by shrinking budgets, more stakeholders, and bigger and more complex programs. What to make of it? Where to begin?
Like many of you, my journey began with a question: “Siri, what is monitoring and evaluation?”. Goodness knows I have drifted to the far corners of the internet only to end up with more questions than answers. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there (theories, new approaches and mysterious jargon). Fear not — I come bearing good news.
You won’t find these next few tips in any book or library; they are grounded in experience and a lot of hit-and-miss. Here are 5 — albeit obvious — secrets any expert would agree that, once understood, will help you deliver better M+E.
M+E is often a complete failure.
You’re not alone. Many organizations — big and small — around the world are dealing with this problem. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true: few projects truly manage to demonstrate tangible impact. Although you might know for a fact that your project had wonderful results and reached all of its objectives, unless you can demonstrate with evidence that all of this actually happened, no one will believe you.
Let’s imagine you organized five regional workshops across Central Asia. You collected registration lists and you have proof that 50 young people attended each event. A common mistake is to believe that this is enough. You should be able to tell anyone evaluating your project what the results of the workshops are, whether these events reached their expected results, and how each participant has changed as an effect of your project. If you claim that your project was successful, you need to back up your claim with data.
Another common mistake is to collect data, store it somewhere in the office and forget about it until the next reporting deadline. M+E is almost always a failure because projects are unable to produce data that is used to adapt project activities or improve organizational learning.
Imagine you distributed pre-and-post tests to all workshop participants. However wonderful that may be, you also need to compare each participant’s pre and post scores to determine whether or not the workshops were truly successful. M+E is all about deciding what needs to be done differently. If the workshop proved to be a success, fantastic; let’s do it again. On the other hand, if your analysis shows negative results, you need to pull up your socks, share your findings and decide what needs to change.
M+E doesn’t just happen, it needs to be planned.
Before your project officially takes flight, and before you actually start collecting — and hopefully analyzing data — you need to come up with a solid plan. Think of M+E as a journey: you have a destination with occasional stops along the way, a method of transportation and a map of how to get to where you want to go.
Imagine that these regional workshops you were organizing are part of a larger project with many more activities. You have a “monitoring plan” that contains an objective along with typical activity-based results (outcomes and outputs). You know your destination, but how will you get there?
Setting a plan begins with visualizing the positive change that you want your project to generate, describing why this change is important, and explaining what results your project should produce for this change to happen. Then, you need to determine how these results will be measured, define what success would look like, design data collection instruments, identify who will collect the data, schedule when the data will be collected, and decide who is going to use the data and for what purpose.
Always keep in mind that some things will change along the way, so leave some room for adaptation — not everything can be set in stone. Still, once you get going, you’ll be thankful that you have a comprehensive plan so that important details don’t fall through the cracks.
Don’t sugarcoat the results, be honest and fearless.
It’s not always cupcakes and butterflies in our line of work. With growing demand for innovation and different approaches, failure is unfortunately inevitable. Let’s embrace it. All changes and all results — whether positive or negative, expected or unexpected — need to be reported. Because a good report, after all, is one that gets used.
Imagine that the expected result of your workshop in Dushanbe was for participants to increase their sensitivity towards gender-based violence, and that the findings of your pre-and-post tests show that the majority of participants are more supportive of violence against women than they were at the beginning of the workshop. Suppose you have a follow-up workshop in Nur-Sultan, you understand what went wrong and you don’t want to reproduce the same mistake. The activity backfired and you have a dilemma: do you share these findings or keep them for yourself? The answer is clear: share the findings and adapt your approach.
No one will take you seriously if you only show positive results. It is perfectly fine to admit that things didn’t happen as planned. Be honest, be fearless, but also allow yourself some time to adapt and go for qualitative approaches to complement negative quantitative results in your reporting. Think of it as cooking a soft-boiled egg: you might over-cook it the first time, but you’ll learn from your experience and set the timer at 5 minutes, instead 10, the next time.
Think outside of your project and work as a team.
M+E is dull as dishwater when you do it alone. It’s time-consuming, frustrating and it isn’t worth it if you don’t share your successes and failures with your colleagues. Never suffer in silence. Good M+E can happen when data from several projects is interlaced to paint a big cohesive portrait. It’s not rocket science: the key to plan and implement M+E is to work as a team.
Imagine that something happens as a result of your individual project. Whether that change is positive or negative, you and your colleagues need to understand how it fits within the bigger picture of your organization’s work, values, goals and overall vision.
Monitoring and evaluation requires ownership from the whole team from beginning to end. That means a lot of people need to get involved and gain a better understanding of M+E. Well, what are you waiting for?
Don’t hire a consultant, build your capacity.
“Let’s hire an M+E officer”, you might say. Let me tell you, as a monitoring and evaluation officer, I will be the first to say: not cool. The trend of hiring one person to do all the work needs to stop. Organizations should invest in their staff’s capacity. This might take some time, so don’t wait for this moment to come — invest in your own capacity. M+E is not a standalone task on your list of duties; it is embedded in everything that we do as professionals in the civil society sector. Whether your role is to develop projects or to implement them in the field, increasing your M+E skills will help you improve your work overall. That’s a fact.
IDEA Central Asia is about to launch a training course for professionals on the basics and specifics of M+E. This 5-lesson training program will focus on how to plan and implement M+E , how to respond to unexpected outcomes, as well as designing results frameworks that inform effective program adaptation and organizational learning. Starting with introductory concepts to move into more intermediate and advanced territory, our 5-week course will prioritize hands-on practice over theory. It is designed for professionals like you and me whose purpose is to create practical M+E systems for their project or organization. While the course will be first available in Bishkek in May 2020, we hope to expand to Osh and other locations across Central Asia.
Don’t let the consultants do the work for you. Let us know if you’re keen to build your M+E capacity and share this opportunity with your team. Time has come for an M+E revolution — let’s start it together.
If you’re planning to enroll in our training program, please take a couple minutes to fill out the this questionnaire.
Have a look at our lesson plan.