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Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E): A Step by Step Guide

If you have worked in the development field or with NGOs for a while, the abbreviation M&E definitely has come across your desk a couple of times. While you probably know that it means Monitoring and Evaluation, maybe you are not quite sure how to go about it and what the benefits are of having a good monitoring and evaluation scheme in place. In this article, we will explain in detail what M&E encompasses, why you need it, how it works and how it can help your fundraising.

What is Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)?

Monitoring and Evaluation is an approach that has mainly been developed to measure and assess the success and performance of projects, programs or entire organizations. Depending on the scope and use it is implemented by project staff, consultants or specialized organizations.

Figure 1: The project circle with the processes of Monitoring and Evaluation.

Monitoring and Evaluation refer to two different processes that are closely tied together and therefore used in the same sentence most of the time. It is important to make a distinction between both of the thought, to clearly understand the terms.

To make it easier to understand and more applicable, in the following paragraphs we will focus on monitoring and evaluation on the project or program level.

Monitoring

Monitoring basically refers to the measuring and documenting of progress, achievements, and results. The main goals of monitoring are to collect data to be able to learn from past experiences to improve present or future actions, to have accountability for the resource used, to be able to decide what works and what does not for the future development of the project and to be able to promote functioning approaches further.

Monitoring starts with the planning of a project when indicators are defined. Basically, monitoring means to collect data about the progress of a project and some predefined indicators and to compare the real-time project progress against the planned progress. The main goal is to be able to see if a project is going by plan or if there is a need for any adjustments.

Monitoring is an ongoing process throughout the lifespan of the project or program.

Evaluation

Evaluation is the second step in the approach, where the data collected during the monitoring process is analyzed and evaluated to be able to determine if the goal or aim of a project was achieved or not. With the results of the evaluation process, project planners decide if an approach is worth repeating or up-scaling if adjustments have to be made. They will also be reported to the donor and other stakeholders to prove that resources have been used economically and successfully. A good evaluation strategy gives legitimacy to an organization and its projects.

Why do you need it?

All big organizations have Monitoring and Evaluation schemes for their operations in place, but if you are working for a small NGO, you might ask yourself:

Why do we need it? We have small operations and can keep an overview without a formalized monitoring and evaluation tool.

But even if your organization and the scope of your activities are small, it makes a lot of sense to have a scheme in place.

The first advantage is you will have a big database that you can use if you use a formalized monitoring tool. You will collect formalized data throughout your project that is comparable and will create a big database that you can draw from.

You might think you know how everybody in your project is performing, but do you know in exact numbers?

Do you know how many household members every family has? How much income?

All this information normally is collected in the baseline study for monitoring and can be used in the future also for other purposes. Having exact data at hand also means that it is much easier to write reports, updates, and brochures. Instead of having to go into the field every time you need some information, you can use your existing database and save yourself a lot of work.

Another advantage is that you catch the wrong developments early on in the process. Imagine you are running a project and everything looks good. You continue throughout the project circle, but in the very end, you realize there was a mistake in the setup or some people underperformed drastically so that the success of the entire project is in danger. These developments are difficult to catch unto without formalized data collection and monitoring and can affect an organization’s performance hugely. With an appropriate monitoring scheme in place and milestones along the way, you can see developments and challenges in real-time and react to them immediately instead of seeing their results in the end when it is too late to change anything.

A third advantage is that monitoring and evaluation tools give your organization the ability to be very specific about your impact and your successes. When you report to stakeholders and are able to show improvements throughout the project lifespan against the baseline study, you can use exact numbers and very concrete data to underline this. If you have no monitoring and evaluation in place, you have to rely on feelings and guesses, which makes a much smaller impression on stakeholders than solid data and reliable information.

Particularly when you work with donations or grants, having monitoring and evaluation tools shows professionalism and responsibility, as you are working with someone else´s resources and do your best to report and analyze the rational use of these resources.

How does it help to get funding?

organizations or bigger programs, many times a monitoring and evaluation scheme is requested by the donor as it shows accountability and is the only way the donor can objectively get information about results and impact of its investments. Sometimes monitoring and evaluation by an external agency are even requested. Even if it is not a requirement, monitoring and evaluation can still help your organization to get funding though.

One part is that you can use solid data in your application from past evaluations and projects. If you can state facts instead of perceptions, it is much easier to convince a donor to fund a project. I.e. it is much more convincing if you can say: “We conducted a project in the past and had result x, y, and z, and they improved x % percent compared to the baseline study, so now we want to scale up or repeat the project” instead of using vague data and perceptions or opinions instead of facts.

Another advantage is that a good monitoring and evaluation scheme shows the donors that you are an accountable partner and use resources responsibly and transparently. Specifically, when working with new project partners, the willingness to objectively evaluate and monitor work can convince a donor of cooperation, as it shows that your organization is self-reflective and willing to do everything to improve project outcomes and impact.

How does it work?

Over the last paragraphs, we have talked a lot about why you need a monitoring and evaluation scheme in place and what your benefits are. But how does it actually work?

In the following paragraphs, we will get to that.

Performance measurement

The performance management is one of the most used tools in monitoring and evaluation and very easy to understand as well. During the planning process for a project, certain indicators are defined that are closely tied to the project’s goals and intended impact. These indicators have two values: the baseline value (the situation as it is right now) and the target value (the situation how it should be after the project). Depending on the lifespan of the project, sometimes also milestones are defined to make it easier to see if the project is performing on schedule or not.

Creating the baseline study 

For monitoring your project, the baseline study is of core importance and should always take place before and project activities begin. The entire evaluation of the project will be based on the baseline study and its quality will determine the quality of the outcomes of the evaluation process as well. Thus, it is very important to take care in deciding upon the indicators and which kind of data you want to include and collect.

In general, it is advisable to set up the baseline study a little bit broader than you might think is necessary. Once in the field, collecting the data it is easy to add one or two questions, but when you realize later that you need that information, it is a big task to go back into the field. Also, once you started the project it is more difficult to get the information again because your activities might already have influenced the data.

Also, think of other uses of the data that you are collecting. It is always advisable to have a broad data pool to be able to use it for different purposes like future applications, reports, and brochures. The more concrete information you can gather about your target population, the better for your representation.

Defining indicators

To measure the performance of a project or program, you need to define a certain set of indicators on which you want to achieve change or progress throughout the lifespan of your project. Normally, these indicators are grouped together for different topics and displayed in the form of a table. If they have been used in a project application, they will be used for reporting purposes throughout the project lifespan.

IndicatorsBaseline valueTarget valueAchieved after 1 year
Education
Teacher training12 % of teachers received additional training90 % of teachers received additional trainingEnrollment for training started with a set of workshops, 60 % of teachers enrolled in a program
Attendance rates67% of students attend school regularly100 % of students attend school regularlyAwareness campaign started, 75 % of students attend school regularly
Health
Available hospitalsNo hospital is available in the district2 hospitals are open for the public in the districtFirst contacts with local administration established, registration process started
% of births in hospitals5% of women give birth in a hospital50% of women give birth in a hospital7% of women give birth in a hospital, difficulties arise from the unavailability of facilities

Figure 2: Example for a table with indicators for the performance measurement (source: own representation) 

As you can see in the example in Fig.2, the performance measurement of indicators gives your organization the possibility to track success and progress and thus makes it easy to identify bumps in the road and challenges. Even if you are not required by the donor to hand in progress reports, it makes a lot of sense to monitor the progress on the indicators for your own use.

If you are required to report about milestones and you underperform in some areas, you should always add detailed information about why and how this happened. This also gives you a chance to revise the setup of the project and point out in an early stage if there are any problems with it and if any adjustments have to be made.

Evaluation

The evaluation compromises the analysis of the data collected throughout the monitoring process. While monitoring is almost always done within the organization by own staff, sometimes it can be required that the evaluation is done by outsiders like consultants, as it is very important that it is objective.

With the evaluation, organizations want to find out – normally at the end of a project cycle – if the project was worthwhile, achieved its goals and was implemented efficiently. It is also determined if there had been any unintended outcomes and if they were negative or positive.

The evaluation normally comprises a cost-efficiency analysis to see if the money was spent responsibly and effectively.

In the case of underperformance in specific outcomes, the evaluators analyze the reasons for this underperformance to be able to know if they were external or internal.

In general, during the evaluation process, it is determined, what can be learned by the implementation and what could be lessons for the future and for future projects. An evaluation makes it easier to learn from past experiences, as mistakes will not be repeated and particularly unintended outcomes are brought to the surface.

Impact measurement 

Although it is relatively easy to measure outcomes, provided the baseline study was well designed, it is very difficult to actually measure impact. It is very difficult to establish a definite connection of cause between project activities and outcomes, as there are many other variables that have to be taken into consideration.

If your organization trained teachers, but at the same time the road to the school was repaired, it is difficult to distinguish between the effect the training had on attendance rate and the effect the better road had. If your target group for enhanced farming techniques is farmers from one village and participation is voluntary, it is very difficult to say if better harvests can be related solely to your program or if the volunteers were the more active and progressive farmers anyways.

Impact assessment can only be implemented when the dataset is very big and some very clear connections can be drawn. Otherwise, outcomes and results can be described without claiming causality.

Conclusion

As you can see, Monitoring and Evaluation are very important tools for projects and organizations of all sizes. If you have a good scheme in place, you show that your organization is reliable, accountable, and a good partner. If you use the results of evaluations strategically, you can improve your project designs and implementations in the future and show potential donors, that you have valuable experiences in your field. During projects, you will be able to detect erroneous trends early on and be able to change and adjust projects early enough. You will have a database that you can draw from for multiple purposes.


About the author

Priti Thapa

Priti is a Development Professional with years of experience as a Director of Operations for an American humanitarian organization in Nepal. She is a published writer and researcher focusing on international development funding and grassroots NGOs. She holds a master’s degree in Business. She oversees the team that provides support to NGOs and site users.