Monitoring and Evaluation: When is the Right Time to Invest?
Investing in Your Monitoring and Evaluation System
Monitoring and Evaluation, known in its abbreviated form as M&E, is a diagnostic process used by nonprofits, foundations, social initiatives, governments, international organizations, and NGOs. The method combines data collection and analysis with thorough assessments to determine project performance and whether objectives are being met. The end goal is to improve outputs while simultaneously measuring outcomes and impacts.
The monitoring and evaluation process can be lengthy, but the framework plays a vital role in standardizing how criteria are assessed to demonstrate your story of change. It can feel like an overwhelming process, which is why having professional consultants working on your monitoring and evaluation plan can be advantageous.
Here’s everything you need to know about M&E systems, how they work, and when you might want to consider hiring a professional consultant or investing in a tool to support the monitoring and evaluation process.
Monitoring and Evaluation: The Basics
Let’s start with some definitions and benefits and who you should involve in your monitoring and evaluation process.
What is M&E?
The Independent Evaluation Group defines monitoring as "A continuing function that uses systematic collection of data on specified indicators to provide management and the main stakeholders of an ongoing development intervention with indications of the extent of progress and achievement of objectives and progress in the use of allocated funds.”
Evaluation, on the other hand, is defined as "The process of determining the worth or significance of a development activity, policy or program ... to determine the relevance of objectives, the efficacy of design and implementation, the efficiency of resource use, and the sustainability of results.”
Monitoring and evaluation go hand in hand. Data collection is essential, but without analysis rooted in careful evaluation against defined criteria, it is not enough to form meaningful conclusions on performance.
Why You Need M&E
Nonprofits are judged on the transparency of their operations and how they allocate donations and resources. They are targeted on accuracy, efficiency, and accountability. Nonprofits and other philanthropic organizations see continual pressure from stakeholders to demonstrate success and report back on development projects using comprehensive and compelling data-rich evidence.
Whichever way your organization fosters change in the community and regardless of the specific development project or program, monitoring and evaluation techniques have become a critical aspect of the process. Impact organizations rely on M&E tools to implement plans, conduct analysis, and produce reports that demonstrate relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability.
How is M&E Performed?
With a solid monitoring and evaluation plan in place, organizations can set clear intentions about the questions that need to be answered, how data is collected and organized, and the way results are communicated to internal and external stakeholders.
The key steps in creating an M&E plan are:
1. Identify goals and objectives. What are the problems your program is trying to solve? How do you plan to solve them? How will you know if you’ve been successful?
2. Define indicators. To track progress accurately, you need to include indicators that measure both what is being done and the outcomes of your efforts.
3. Decide on data collection methods and timelines. There are several qualitative and quantitative ways to collect data for monitoring and evaluation.
- Logical framework approaches
- Theory-based evaluation
- Formal surveys
- Living standards measurement surveys (LSMS)
- Performance monitoring indicators
- Core welfare indicators questionnaires (CWIQ)
- Citizen report cards
- Informant interviews
- Focus group discussions
- Public expenditure tracking surveys
- Impact evaluation
- Cost-benefit analysis
- Cost-effectiveness analysis
4. Set roles and responsibilities. By deciding which staff members are responsible for analyzing each indicator, there should be no gaps or overlaps.
- 5. Create analysis and reporting templates. Having decisive standard operational procedures means the same M&E system can be applied to various projects and developments consistently and without bias.
- Defining which statistical tests need to be performed
- Deciding which software to use
- Agreeing on how results will be presented
- Designing templates for indicator data research and reporting tables
6. Dissemination Planning. There is no point in the M&E process if you don’t use the information. Communicating findings to staff and stakeholders is critical so that everyone is up to date and you can continue to make your programs and practices more effective. Make sure the data is accessible as well in case there are additional questions or follow ups that can inform areas for optimization.
What are the Benefits?
Whatever monitoring and evaluation tools you decide to use, the primary benefits are the same:
- Increased transparency and accountability
- Better internal organization
- Early identification of problems
- Efficient use of resources
- Improved decision-making
- Improved innovation
- Ability to learn from mistakes
These factors help you achieve the best overall results while maintaining a consistent dialogue between all stakeholders.
Who Should Perform M&E Services?
There will likely be many team members involved, all with distinct roles. The scale, goals, and types of monitoring and evaluation processes you have in place will ultimately depend on the size of your organization, the scope of your projects, and the range of indicators you are looking to assess.
Typically, there will be one overall coordinator, with other staff members responsible for collecting, analyzing, collating, and disseminating various information. However, sometimes the demands of a suitably rigorous process can be too much for an in-house team alone. That’s where consultants come in.
The Complexities of Monitoring and Evaluation
The primary differentiator between mission-driven impact organizations is that outcomes and impacts are more difficult to assess than simply whether an organizational objective has been achieved. Philanthropic organizations have to prove their organization is making a difference and continuously committed to discovering new ways to improve. Everything that they do, including any failures or problems they face, must be transparent.
As a result, M&E roles in the social sector should only be undertaken by professionals with significant knowledge and expertise. The focus is on conducting the most ethical research possible because the results affect the lives and community dynamics of vulnerable people and populations.
Investing in Your M&E System
You may already recognize that you need help with your program’s monitoring and evaluation procedures. But this is of little value if you don’t know exactly what you need help with, where to find assistance, and how to prepare.
Signs You Need Monitoring and Evaluation
If any of these situations sound familiar, then it may be time to invest in professional help:
- Issues are apparent, but reliable data is missing
- There is evidence of positive bias
- There is an excess of qualitative data, but little or no quantitative data
- There isn’t a definitive list of indicators to measure
- Timescales for measurement are inconsistent
- Data collection methods are inconsistent
Over time, these variables lead to a lack of clarity, demotivated staff, frustrated donors, and lots of wasted time.
In-House vs. Consultant
There are advantages and disadvantages to each option. Benefits of in-house consultants include:
- There is a vested interest in the success of the organization as a whole, not just on specific projects.
- Familiarity with internal processes.
- Access to large quantities of internal information at a faster pace because there are no external confidentiality policy restrictions.
Some disadvantages of using in-house staff are that:
- They may not have the required level of knowledge or expertise to achieve optimum results.
- It may be harder for them to make objective and unbiased decisions.
- Organizations still need to absorb the cost of in-house staff, even after a project is completed.
When you hire an external consultant, knowledge, expertise, and a proven track record should be a given. However, there are some further advantages too:
- Access to specialists across a range of fields and subjects.
- Working with a reputable consultant can raise the profile and credibility of your organization.
- An outside perspective guarantees minimal bias and fresh ideas.
- Extended networking opportunities through other M&E clients.
- On shorter-term projects, the cost can work out less than supporting full-time staff with salaries and benefits packages.
The downsides of hiring an outsourced consultant include:
- Lack of focus or physical presence if they are juggling multiple clients.
- It is difficult to assign accountability after the contract has ended unless post-completion support is available.
Should you decide that consulting an external specialist is the way forward, there are several preemptive steps you can take to ensure you are prepared, and that between you, you can measure outcomes and impacts efficiently:
- Have a firm understanding of donor M&E expectations
- Settle on clearly defined intended outcomes
- Prepare a shortlist of potential indicators to measure
- Define specific short-term and long-term goals
- Be ready to hand over existing and historical data
How UpMetrics Can Help
Is your organization struggling with measuring, managing, or interpreting your monitoring and evaluation data? At UpMetrics, we understand that your work is meaningful, and we’re here to help with all of the M&E tools and support you need to make your outcomes meaningful too.
The UpMetrics platform is uniquely designed to help organizations transform data streams into quantifiable information so you can visualize and communicate your impact in measurable ways. By incorporating multiple data sources, including third-party data, quantitative data collected directly from partners, and qualitative data, you’ll achieve confidence that your M&E data is comprehensive, providing needed clarity around the impact of specific activities and long-term implications.