Love it or hate it, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) is becoming an ever more intrinsic part of charities’ work. And rightly so. In this article, we share 3 DOs and 3 DON’Ts from what we’ve learnt so far in creating MEL processes that avoid headaches and add value.
Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning in charity partnership
Love it or hate it, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) is becoming an ever more intrinsic part of charities’ work. And rightly so. MEL helps us understand what’s really working, what our service users actually want, what change we’re making and how we can continually improve. It’s also a huge part of donor reporting, demonstrating that how we spend precious funds has the greatest impact possible.
But at the same time, MEL can also be a drag. One more pressure taking valuable time away from small teams doing brilliant work. Just thinking about indicators, outcomes, outputs and Theories of Change can very quickly become overwhelming, let alone trying to train an over-stretched team to put them into practice.
These challenges only grow when charities work in partnership - having to build new and additional MEL frameworks on top of their own existing ones. That’s the challenge we faced coming into the Explore Adapt Renew (EAR) programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and managed by Refugee Action.
EAR is all about changing the way UK society supports asylum seekers and refugees. It brings together 7 leading charities from across the UK so that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have a stronger voice in the asylum system, have greater access to justice and are better supported to successfully rebuild their lives.
But to know whether it's achieving any of these goals, we’ve come in as Learning Partners to help run a MEL process that works. In this article, we share 3 DOs and 3 DON’Ts from what we’ve learnt so far in creating MEL processes that avoid headaches and add value.
Getting to Grips with Explore Adapt Renew
When we started with EAR in April 2023, we weren’t coming in at the start. The partnership had already developed an impressively comprehensive MEL framework through a process that had helped the partners really think through what the conditions for success looked like.
We loved this framework but we wanted to make it simpler. Despite identifying so many important indicators, the partnership hadn’t managed to roll out the tools to collect data on many of them - and looked unlikely to do so in the near future.
We began by conducting a process of prioritisation - thoroughly reviewing the MEL framework and making difficult but necessary decisions to create a simpler and more immediately workable framework that could start capturing the many remarkable developments and learnings going on in these organisations’ work. We didn’t want to lose any of this gold!
This prioritisation process was done in collaboration with the partners and the lead team at Refugee Action. We got feedback and finally approved a new version in time for the half-yearly reporting cycle in June. Launching this beta version together with a suite of simpler data capture tools, we continued to offer one-to-one support to help guide anyone needing additional support. As the data poured in, we started bringing it all together and finally played it back to the partners to get their feedback and thoughts for when we do this all again in December.
So, what did we learn? Here are our 3 DOs and 3 DON’Ts for MEL in partnerships.
- DO always get feedback, but don’t be afraid to take a lead
Working collaboratively is at the heart of building strong partnerships. When making a MEL framework, use a mixture of one-to-one and group discussions to gather feedback and make sure what’s built works for everyone. At the same time, one of our key learnings is that there’s simply a limit to how much time busy partners organisations can put aside for yet more MEL. So, make it easy for them: give clear recommendations and guide conversations so that actionable steps can be taken.
- DO make it inviting
MEL might seem like it’s just spreadsheets, numbers and transcripts, but it doesn’t have to be! In partnerships, it’s so important to make MEL as appealing as possible to ensure better participation. When writing indicators and your Theory of Change, keep sentences simple and short. Avoid jargon at all costs! Equally important is presenting your MEL framework in bite-size chunks: not everyone needs the full, detailed picture. Break it down for individual partners and focus on what they need to know.
- DO be experimental (why not try out some AI?)
Amid all the numbers and reams of text, it’s sometimes easy to get overwhelmed. Experimental approaches can help! This summer, we’ve been experimenting with AI softwares. These can be great for working with qualitative data: paraphrasing long texts, standardising varying writing styles and finding common themes across answers. AI’s also powerful for working with quantitative data, performing calculations in a flash and coming to the rescue when that excel formula just doesn’t seem to be working.
- DON’T collect data for the sake of it
Remember that it’s not about collecting data, but about using and learning from it. As such, check once, twice or three times that the data you’re collecting is useful. That it’s relevant. Check if you can cut down on anything and continue doing this throughout the entire project cycle as what’s relevant might well change. There’s nothing worse than time-stretched organisations dutifully filling out surveys and forms for that precious data to just sit there. You can always add more indicators, more collection methods, more bells and more whistles later! Just as important for this is making sure that there are enough human resources available to deal with all this data. Only got a small team? Make sure your MEL framework is suitably lean!
- DON’T be messy - make sure you’re ruthlessly organised
Collecting, storing and analysing data from 7 partners is no easy feat. Hundreds of data points meet with at least as many styles for submitting data as there are partners. Make life as easy as possible for them and for you. Wherever possible, automate data capture and storage using tools like Google Forms. Collect quantitative responses alongside qualitative ones to build a high-level picture of the situation. We created one master dashboard on Google Sheets that brought together everything in one place. Be ruthless with your digital cleanliness, sharing permissions, file version histories. In short, be a digital ninja!
- Don’t lose sight of the goal: why you’re doing all this
Amid all the pivot table madness and curse-worth, broken formulas, don’t forget that there’s a point behind all this. Make sure you return to the central question that started this partnership off. Print it out. Stick it on your computer. Set it as a recurring reminder or make it your desktop background! As charities, we’re here to improve lives and make the world a better place. Everything else is just a way to help us accomplish this.
We hope you’ve enjoyed these DOs and DON’Ts for getting MEL right in partnerships. Here at Explore Adapt Renew, we’re far from having it all perfect: the best MEL frameworks are those that are live conversations that keep us curious to new learning, new possibilities and new approaches.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this article. What’s your experience of building MEL processes for charity partnerships? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s start a conversation.