Monitoring and evaluation is increasingly becoming a donor requirement, with many NPOs investing in measuring the impact of their development work. Yet is this increased activity actually feeding back into projects to improve them? This question was debated in a breakaway session at Trialogue’s CSI Conference 2015. 

Though over 80% of corporates and NPOs claim to be measuring project performance and impact, according to Trialogue’s CSI research in 2014 the questions remains as to what they are doing with this knowledge. At the 8th annual Trialogue CSI conference held in Johannesburg on 5 and 6 May 2015, Ramesh Chhagan from Exxaro argued that organisations are learning from their M&E, while Marianne Brittijn (Community Development Resource Association – CDRA) took the stance that organisations are not.

Ramesh’s experience with social and labour plans at Exxaro has shown him that compliance driven efforts don’t necessarily breed trust or a social licence to operate within the communities surrounding Exxaro’s operations. As a result, Exxaro has shifted away from compliance towards a shared value approach by viewing these communities as development partners rather than beneficiaries. As such, they seek the common ground between community needs and business objectives. This approach has stimulated the need for extensive M&E at Exxaro. “We have adopted a strategic outcomes-based approach to M&E. For us, it’s about impact, not just whether objectives are being met”, describes Ramesh.

Exxaro have chosen the Social Return On Investment (SROI) methodology which Ramesh describes as “a comprehensive approach” as this includes a theory of change and a translation of change into rand-value. While comments from the audience indicated a scepticism about the use of this methodology in effectively measuring social change, Ramesh’s response was that the conversion of the social impact into rands and cents allows corporates to convince their boards that they are valid. Says Ramesh: “If you’re looking at CSI budgets, these are limited. If you can sell the value through using SROI, you could unlock a wider pool of money from human resources, labour resources etc.”

According to Ramesh, M&E processes have improved Exxaro’s CSI planning and management decisions and helps them to focus on shared value and sustainability by facilitating meaningful conversations with the projects they support.

Demystify M&E for NPOs

Marianne joined the conversation with a different perspective gained through her experiences in capacity building and organisational development of NPOs. “A lot of NPOs feel like M&E is a waste of time and interferes with what they are really there to do,” explains Marianne. “So it’s important to demystify M&E by showing how vital it is to organisational practice.” Marianne describes M&E as more than a tool; and that it should form an aspect of almost every activity as a way of measuring, reflecting and learning. In this way, it pushes the organisation forward by continuously improving practice.

But Marianne has found that most NPOs don’t plan M&E into their interventions, and therefore aren’t effectively able to understand whether they are on track to achieve their objectives. Those that do plan for M&E usually don’t include this in their budget, with the result that resources for related activities are slim and M&E remains neglected. A further issue, she says, is that baseline measurements are rarely undertaken with the result that, even when M&E is done, there is no data to compare findings against. When organisations do collect data, they often don’t take the time to analyse and reflect on the findings.

Marianne asserts that it is crucial for organisations to be able to illustrate change in order to remain accountable. By continually “asking hard questions” organisations can learn from their failures and successes.

When the audience was asked by show of hands how many tracked outcomes indicators, most of the room responded positively. However, when asked how many had a budget for M&E, only a very limited number responded in the affirmative. How this discrepancy impacted on M&E results and efficacy was unfortunately not unpacked due to time, and remains a question worth asking again another day.

By Denise Archer