With limited time and resources, nonprofit organizations are often forced to make tough decisions. Given the importance of the work they do – to those who do the work, to the constituents they serve, and to their donors and funders – it takes priority over everything else.
In fact, nonprofits are so busy trying to get the work done that when it comes to monitoring and evaluation (M&E), they often choose to do the work rather than stop to reflect and measure their impact. The result is a focus on outputs (the products or services provided, e.g. number of trees planted) rather than outcomes (a change in the way people or the system behave, e.g. reduced rates of deforestation). After all, it’s easier to measure what the organization has done in terms of activities than what it has achieved in terms of impact.
The problem is that M&E is an essential part of doing the work well. At the most fundamental level, measuring the work helps an organization to learn and improve the work it does, so it can do it both more efficiently and more effectively. It also helps an organization make the case that it does in fact make a difference in the world – that its work is actually solving a problem and it isn’t just spinning its wheels with no lasting effect. Organizations who take the time to monitor and evaluate their work also demonstrate a sophistication in their management and approach that helps them to rise above organizations who don’t prioritize learning and growth. And all of this strengthens an organization’s case for support, which in turn helps it attract more funding for its work.
Of course, even if an organization wants to monitor and evaluate its work, it doesn’t always have the resources to invest in it. Donors provide funds to get the work done but not to do the M&E required to improve it. While an organization can do some basic M&E on a tight budget, it certainly helps to have some financial support – as well as the encouragement from donors.
And donors should be investing in an organization’s M&E. If nothing else, monitoring and evaluating the work helps donors to see and understand the result of their investment. For foundations who have broader strategies to solve a problem, it can help them to measure their progress towards achieving their own goals in the field, as well as better understand what’s happening in the field in ways that could inform their own strategies. And instead of running their own evaluations, foundations should have the grantees do the M&E, for two reasons: (1) because they’re out in the field and closer to the work, grantees can provide more accurate information; and (2) it builds grantees’ own capacity to do M&E and to continuously learn and improve their work.
Since M&E is so valuable to both organizations and their funders, it should be a part of project budgets. M&E can be a line item for a dedicated staff member, or a consultant to help design a system the organization itself can run, or even just a percentage of the grant. Organizations should be asking for M&E funds, and funders should encourage their grantees to include M&E in their project budgets.
The best part about building M&E into the project budget is that it sets expectations that M&E is a part of doing the work – not something apart from it. Because it is part of the work: learning and evaluation is an important feedback loop that keeps the work on track, focused, and ultimately effective.
There shouldn’t be a choice between doing the work or measuring it. They should be one and the same.