What is Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E)?

photo by Lukas https://www.pexels.com/@goumbik

Governments and other funders increasingly expect that NGOs, volunteer organisations and other organisations in receipt of their funding will use M&E in the course of/ at the end of their projects.

Engaging in M&E practices also allows organisations and individual volunteers to check whether they are indeed helping the communities they are working with; and in some cases, resolve any issues before a project comes to an end.

So, M&E is designed to help you learn, to ensure accountability and demonstrate effectiveness as well as efficiency. Some of the most common questions about it are answered below:

What is Monitoring?

Monitoring is ‘the routine collection and analysis of information to track progress against set plans and check compliance to established standards’ (IFRC). It is really just a process of checking as you go along, making sure you are not late or off track or potentially even doing harm.

The good news is that you are almost certainly engaged in monitoring already, even if you are not doing it formally.

You are probably already undertaking regular field visits and having regular phone, skype or email contact with your partners. You can use those visits and conversations to keep tabs on how the monitoring process is going.

As you can see from the list below, there are many different types of monitoring. But you should not worry about the distinctions between forms of monitoring and focus on what can usefully be monitored.

There are two main pitfalls to avoid:

  • The first is simply not to monitor at all or to do so in ways that are entirely reliant on short-term memory and then never actually recorded.
  • The second danger is to record everything and to end up collating vast reams of data that will not tell you whether or not you are meeting your objectives and making a difference.

When designing your project, try to think about your goals and how progress towards those goals can be measured. It is this progress, or lack of progress that you are monitoring.

So, for example, through your monitoring, you notice that only 80 of a planned 150 infants have been vaccinated at the end of year one of your three-year project. This should be a red flag but, thanks to your monitoring process, you may still have time to get your vaccination programme back on track or adjust the expectations of your funder.

Types of Monitoring

According to the IFRC, monitoring can take various forms including:

  • Results monitoring which tracks whether a project is on target towards its intended results (outputs, outcomes, impact) e.g., Have all the children in a target community actually been immunised?
  • Process (activity) monitoring tracks whether inputs and resources have been used efficiently. For example, have the correct medicines been delivered on schedule to the correct medical unit?
  • Compliance monitoring checks compliance with regulations, contract requirements, laws, and ethical standards. For example, has any electrical equipment that is being donated been properly tested?
  • Context (situation) monitoring tracks the setting in which the project operates, especially insofar as this poses a risk to the project. For example, how might civil unrest in a neighbouring village impact upon the outcomes of your project or lead you to change the assumptions on which it is based?
  • Financial monitoring focuses on costs and ensures implementation is within budget. Have school uniforms been purchased and delivered at the projected price?
  • Organisational monitoring tracks institutional aspects of a project’s implementation: how have project partners worked together and communicated with each other?
  • Beneficiary monitoring tracks beneficiary perceptions of a project. It includes satisfaction or complaints with the project and partners. What benefit have they perceived from the digging of a village well?

What is Evaluation?

For the OECD, evaluation is ‘an assessment, as systematic and objective as possible, of an ongoing or completed project, programme or policy, its design, implementation and results. The aim is to determine the relevance and fulfillment of objectives, developmental efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability.’

For the IFRC, it is ‘a structured process of assessing the success of a project in meeting its goals and to reflect on the lessons learned.’

For our purposes, evaluation will be taken simply to mean: ‘checking that you are doing (have done) the right thing and that you are doing (have done) it right.’

An evaluation is periodic, retrospective and might be conducted internally or by external independent evaluators. There are many different types of evaluation (see below).

A key distinction is between formative and summative evaluations. The former often take place at the mid-way point in a project/ programme. The latter are usually conducted at the end of a project/ programme.

‘when the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative’

‘when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative’

So a formative/mid-term/ progress evaluation seeks to gauge progress in meeting the goals of the programme/ project. The data can help to fine-tune the project and contribute to a future summative evaluation which assesses a mature project’s success in reaching its stated goals. Summative evaluation often asks the same questions as a progress evaluation, but take place at the end of the project/ programme. (NSF)

Types of Evaluation

There are many different types of evaluation as set out below. It is not essential to know the (sometimes subtle) distinctions between most types of evaluation.

In some cases, the distinction is obvious, for example, between self-evaluations and formal independently commissioned evaluations. In other cases, the difference lies in the evaluative methods used.

As our 1-2-3 approach will show, you will get different results when you choose different (e.g. hard versus soft) research methods. This does not mean that you have to opt for one approach rather than another. But you should be aware of which broad approach you are taking as it will affect the way you collect data and the claims you subsequently make.

According to IFRC, there are several different types of evaluation:

  1. Process evaluations complement and go beyond routine monitoring. They improve understanding of the project implementation process and are often conducted early on in a project to learn why planned outputs and direct outcomes are not being achieved or when there are specific operational concerns. They draw on project records, focus groups, interviews and participant observation.
  2. Impact evaluations gauge the causal effects of an intervention, including any unintended effects, positive or negative, either on the targeted beneficiaries or other groups. They also weigh up the intervention’s costs in relation to its effects (its cost-effectiveness). Donors such as the Agence Francaise de Developpement use these evaluations to work out whether, for example, all donor microfinance programmes in a target recipient country are having a cumulative impact. Such evaluations are not for the faint-hearted and are costly to undertake.
  3. Thematic and cluster/ sector evaluations focus on particular themes (e.g. gender/ environment) or clusters/ sectors (e.g. health) and assess the performance of a number of projects across those themes/ sectors. These are large-scale evaluations and probably best left to donor governments and larger NGOs.
  4. Real-time evaluations are undertaken during project/ programme implementation to provide instant feedback for modifications to improve ongoing implementation. The emphasis is on immediate lesson learning over impact evaluation or accountability. These are particularly useful during emergency operations (IFRC).
  5. Self-Evaluations or Self-Assessment whereby NGO staff assess programmes/projects and submit reports to senior management. Self‐assessment is much cheaper to implement than hiring an independent consultant. It also can encourage learning, and a sense of ownership of the evaluation process amongst staff (BOND). NGO staff may also be better placed to understand the complexities of a project or programme than an external evaluator. However, self‐assessments can be difficult to conduct effectively, and internal evaluators may miss some things that an outside observer would pick up on. They also lack a guarantee of impartiality/ credibility (BOND). Ask your funder’s views before embarking on such an evaluation. Your argument could be that this is your way into evaluation and that you do not have the budget to undertake a full-scale independent evaluation.
  6. Joint Evaluations (or peer‐assessment) involves staff from one or more peer organisation conducting the evaluation. This keeps costs relatively low and can be more insightful, and more credible. Because the assessors come from similar organisations, they will be well informed about the challenges of the sector. The main problem is that it requires a high level of trust between NGOs, so that the assessed organisation can be open and honest during the evaluation. Where there is strong competition for funds, for example, NGOs may be unwilling to let a potential rival organisation scrutinise their operations, in case the information is later used against them (BOND).
  7. Evaluations accompagnées’, where NGOs are accompanied by an independent expert/ evaluator, this is a good way for NGOs and Volunteer Organisations to start engaging with M&E. This technique can offer invaluable insights, expertise, and learning. The challenge is, however, to find a willing collaborator. In the French NGO sector, the government-NGO funded body, the F3E, provides such evaluators at very low cost, to learn more about their services visit their website here.

This is not the place to consider the different roles or indeed perceptions of the evaluator carrying out the evaluation. As the image below demonstrates, these perceptions differ greatly. The important aspect is to understand the importance of evaluation in the scheme of your project, and how you could go about undertaking an evaluation.

Test your knowledge

Once you have read the information above, take the following quiz to check your understanding. See also a glossary of all key terms used in this toolkit.

Why is M&E avoided?

Cumming (20082009) has shown how French and other NGOs often view M& E negatively, as part of a process of professionalisation that is associated with ‘‘the application of managerial practices and structures adopted from the commercial sphere’’ (Haddad 2002, p. 51).

NGOs are sometimes concerned that practices such as M&E are a gateway that will reduce their autonomy, create a bureaucratic ‘‘development monoculture’’ (Fowler (2000, p. 105) and turn NGOs into “the technical agencies of government’’ (Korten, 1991, p. 36).

Cumming (2008 ) has shown that, while larger NGOs have become much more aware of the need for M&E and have developed participatory and other tools, many smaller NGOs remain reluctant and harbour a fear of M&E as an unknown entity. These smaller NGOs make a number of assumptions.

Common Assumptions

  • Evaluations will cost too much and monitoring will take too long.  

In other words, M& E is an unaffordable luxury, an administrative burden, or an unwelcome instrument of external oversight (Cambridge M&E).

  • M&E will expose flaws in their project/programme design and will deliver the ‘wrong’ or sub-optimal results.

According to Riddell et al. (1997: 66), almost all “the Terms of Reference [for evaluations] set the scene for anticipating exceedingly high expectations of what can be achieved, particularly what can be said about development impact.”

  • M&E will be too technical and should be left to the experts.

Some confusion surrounds the methodology of conducting M&E. NGOs often do not start by identifying the problem and then working towards the solution. Instead, they identify their expertise and resources and fit these to the perceived or real problem in the beneficiary country.  

  • It is better to operate exclusively in the ‘‘here and now’’ (Mowjee, 2001, p. 174).

NGOs often have an action-oriented culture, which tends to assume that lessons are constantly changing (Cumming, 2008).

The Truth of the Matter …

Note that the above concerns are not baseless:

  • M&E is not resource-neutral.
  • M& E is not easy.
  • Metrics-based, theoretical and participatory tools can be challenging.
  • NGOs are often hampered by staff shortages and the rapid turnover of personnel.
  • Note, however, that M&E is within the capacity and reach of smaller NGOs, volunteer organisations and even volunteers
  • The 1-2-3 Method should help you on your way

Think about:

How could your organisation benefit from improved monitoring and evaluation?

Why do we need M&E?

The value of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is now widely recognised in international development circles. Most Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and volunteer organisations (VOs) are expected to engage in M&E, particularly when they receive funding from public funding bodies.

There are many reasons why NGOs should embrace M&E, not least since a lukewarm attitude towards evaluation has a negative impact on the ability of NGOs to learn, store, and disseminate formal lessons (Cumming, 2008b).

For a useful video on this topic, see Khulisa’s experience.

Even so, despite the many benefits of M&E, it can often be neglected by NGOs , partly because it is perceived to be too challenging and costly. Remember that evaluation is not about getting to know everything about a project or programme but about identifying some key markers of success or failure.

M&E can be beneficial…

For Your Beneficiaries

  • M&E can help you show that you are not doing harm and not ‘killing with kindness’. It helps to evidence the ‘good’ you are doing.
  • It can be part of a participatory process that requires you to listen to the opinions of local partners and beneficiaries.

For Yourself

  • It assesses how and where a project has achieved its intended goals, how/ where it has not and how/ where it could be improved.
  • It identifies how efficient the project was (or could be) in converting resources (funded and in-kind) into activities, objectives and goals.
  • It highlights how sustainable and meaningful the project was (or was not) for participants. 

For Your Donor

  • It helps you meet organisational reporting and donor requirements.
  • It can help to show value for money at a time when the press and other bodies are scrutinising/ criticising donor funding of NGOs.
  • It can open the door to future funding from public bodies.

Final points to remember:

  • Evaluation can be done one time, at the end of a project, or it can be an ongoing study.
  • In all cases, evaluation is a way to learn from what has happened, look at it objectively, and use that knowledge to make informed decisions about the future of your work.
  • Evaluation is not just about demonstrating success, it is also about learning why things don’t work. As such, identifying and learning from mistakes is one of the key parts of evaluation. Greater honesty on the part of the entire development industry would channel everyone’s efforts into more productive action!

Where to next?

Click here to return to the top of the page, here to return to the welcome page, here for the Quick 1-2-3 method and here for the Full 1-2-3 Method.