Monitoring and evaluation (often abbreviated M&E) are separate, but related, tools for assessing and understanding program implementation and impact. While evaluation professionals often have graduate degrees or other advanced education in evaluation, data collection, statistics, or qualitative research methods, there are many things your nonprofit organization can do to increase your capacity for planning and implementing good monitoring and evaluation practices.
In this article, we will discuss the similarities and differences between monitoring and evaluation, their importance in program effectiveness, and basic steps your organization can take to increase your capacity for developing monitoring and evaluation systems. There are also many great resources from grant-makers such as the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as textbooks. Please see the list at the end of this article for good sources for additional reading.
What are monitoring and evaluation?
Monitoring and evaluation are critical for building evidence base around the needs your programs address and for assessing the often diverse interventions being implemented to address the problem globally. They are tools for identifying and documenting successful programs and approaches and tracking progress toward common indicators across related projects. Monitoring and evaluation forms the basis of understanding underlying factors and the effectiveness of the response at the service-provider, community, national and international level. [United Nations. 2012]
Monitoring is a systematic and long-term process that gathers information in regards to the progress made by an implemented project. Evaluation is time specific and it’s performed to judge whether a project has reached its goals and delivered what expected according to its original plan [FundsforNGOs. 2013]
Both monitoring and evaluation use social research methods to undertake systematic investigations, aiding to answer a common set of questions. Despite these shared aims, their roles are distinct. The focus of monitoring is on tracking program implementation and progress, including program activities and processes, outputs, and initial outcomes. Monitoring focuses on both what is being done in a program and how it is being done to support management decisions and accountability. [Markiewicz & Patrick. 2016]
Evaluation builds on monitoring and tracking to make judgements about program performance. Analysis conducted as part of an evaluation is usually based on the synthesis of a range of data, including that gained through monitoring. Evaluation is concerned with creating a deeper understand of change. [Markiewicz & Patrick. 2016]
Why are monitoring and evaluation important?
Monitoring and evaluation are important management tools. Nonprofit organizations (and for=profit businesses) use them to track progress and enable informed decision making. While some grant-makers require some type of monitoring and evaluation, the people with whom your organization works can be the greatest consumers of an evaluation. By thoroughly and honestly examining your work, your nonprofit organization can develop programs and activities that are effective, efficient, and a source of powerful change for the community.
The need for monitoring and evaluation is also shown in the contemporary policy context where management strategies such as RBM (Results-Based Management) have influenced the expectations placed on organizations. Monitoring and evaluation have become a vital part of informed decision-making about a program’s future. This is especially important when a program is committed to learning what works for its intended beneficiaries and to adjusting its programs based on the findings. [Markiewicz & Patrick. 2016]
Monitoring and evaluation should be part of a program planning and management process; not just an essential component to a grant application. An evaluation plan is something that should be incorporated into the design stage of a project because it lays the foundation for accurately measuring results, involving appropriate stakeholders, and identifying changes that need to be made to designate the proper resources necessary to increase social impact. Furthermore, proper M&E provides funders with accurate data that is often used to assess the need for continued support.
What does your nonprofit need to get started?
Developing a monitoring and evaluation system is, of course, not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The steps needed depend on the program you are planning and the needs of your particular organization. When asked “If the nonprofits you work with could do one thing to be ready for working with an evaluation consultant, what would it be?”
Be open-minded and ready for change. The responsibility of an evaluation consultant is to assess the needs of the target population within the service environment and devise an actionable plan to address that need. Of course, the management of this plan consists of collecting data and reporting the findings, but if your existing project is not meeting the needs of the target population, then what result is your project really producing? Sometimes needs change. Although this is not always the case, it is important to be prepared for constructive criticism and be open to change if necessary.
There are also some general steps that apply to the development of most monitoring and evaluation systems. Below is an outline adapted from the World Bank which you might use to make sure monitoring and evaluation are included in your program planning.
1. Identify the stakeholders in each part of the program design, implementation, and reporting. Confirm that their input is incorporated in the plans for monitoring and evaluation, as well as in the program design.
2. Discuss and articulate the evaluation’s scope, purpose, intended use, audience, and budget.
3. Determine what you want to learn from the monitoring and evaluation of the program. Develop the evaluation questions based on these priorities. See our previous article Tips for Asking the Right Questions for help on developing evaluation questions.
4. Select indicators which provide a clear method of measuring answers to the evaluation questions. Indicators can be either quantitative or qualitative. A process indicator is information that focuses on how a program is implemented.
5. Figure out the best data collection methods for your indicators and budget. Surveys, interviews, program and administrative data, and document reviews are examples of data collection methods.
6. Analyze the information you collect. Look for patterns or trends that you might want to investigate further.
7. Provide feedback and recommendations based on the analysis. Use the data analysis to make recommendations about what is working and what within your program may need adjustment.
8. Communicate your recommendations, including the data and how you arrived at your conclusions, to your stakeholders. Ask them for feedback on the best ways to use the results. [World Bank. 2007]
No matter what process you use, it is important your program’s theory and logic serve as the foundation for you monitoring and evaluation systems. If you do not have a logic model for your program, please see our article on Creating Useful Logic Models.
Resources remain one of the biggest barriers for nonprofit organizations wanting to increase their monitoring and evaluation activities. According to the Innovation Network’s 2016 survey of U.S.-based 501(c)3 organizations, 92% of nonprofit organizations engaged in evaluation in the past year, with the vast majority of these organizations (92%) receiving funding for evaluation from at least one source. On the other hand, only 12% of nonprofit organizations surveyed spent 5% or more of their organization budgets on evaluation. Less than one-tenth of the nonprofit organizations reported having evaluation staff (internal or external). [Innovation Network. 2017]
Without enough resources, it can be difficult to design and implement monitoring and evaluation systems. On the other hand, the data you gather through monitoring and evaluation activities can help you retain donors. Some nonprofits with successful monitoring and evaluation systems even create data “dashboards” on their websites so donors and other constituents can track the organization’s success. While we often talk about evaluation in relation to grant-makers, the results of continuous monitoring and evaluation can also prove to donors that their money is being used and allocated correctly.
In conclusion, using monitoring and evaluation tools to assess and understand nonprofit program implementation and impact offers important benefits to your organization. Consider increasing your organization’s capacity for planning and implementing good monitoring and evaluation practices by getting involved in a local chapter of the American Evaluation Association, attending a workshop at a nearby university, or talking with a RevGen consultant about simple things you might implement that would have a positive return on investment.
References and Additional Reading
American Evaluation Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
FundsforNGOs. Why is monitoring & Evaluation important for NGOs? 2013
Innovation Network. State of Evaluation 2016: Evaluation Capacity and Practice in the Nonprofit Sector. 2017
Markiewicz, Anne, & Ian Patrick. Developing Monitoring and Evaluation Frameworks. SAGE Publications. 2016
National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health at Georgetown University
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Why is monitoring and evaluation important? 2012
World Bank. Monitoring & Evaluation Tip Sheet. 2007
World Health Organization