The Zenex Foundation recently attended the 7th Biennial South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association Conference. The Zenex CEO, Gail Campbell, was invited to speak on a panel in the strand that focused on the current practice of M&E in the NPO sector. The aim of strand was to create a space for multisectoral conversation among NPOs, Government, Academia, M&E capacity building institutions and donors. This article is a summary of the input made by Ms Gail Campbell.
Funders have a close and symbiotic relationship with non-profit organisations (NPOs) and their successful interrelationship is crucial for the transformation and sustainability of the education sector. Funders bring experience, expertise and resources to this relationship, however they can’t achieve their strategic goals without the NPO sector, which has the experience and expertise needed to ensure that implementation takes place on the ground. Donors cannot contribute to the improvement of the education sector without NPOs, which are integral to the broader education ecosystem. Yet, NPOs are on a treadmill of constantly seeking funding and perpetually needing to reinvent themselves in response to contextual trends. Too often, demands from funders (government, corporate and private) force them to be output driven where their creativity is stifled and their capacity for innovation is limited. It is critical to regard NPOs as partners instead of mere service providers, and to support them accordingly.
At the Zenex Foundation, we have had extensive experience of working with NPOs and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) has always been part of the project lifecycle. We are evidence-driven and M&E allows us to determine what has worked, in which context and for whom. We have a two-fold approach; we commission and fund external evaluations of projects and we also deliberately seek to develop the M&E capacity of NPOs to set up internal M&E systems for ongoing learning.
We have developed a set of lessons and ideas to share regarding what we believe needs to be done going forward to support M&E in the NPO sector – all of these need an on-going commitment from funders. We have clustered our lessons in three main areas:
- Participatory M&E Processes
- Strengthening capacity for M&E
- Dissemination and utilisation of M&E
Participatory M&E Processes
The funding relationship between donors and NPOs is inherently a power relationship as money is always perceived to be the most compelling currency in our world. At Zenex, we deliberately commission evaluation agencies to carry out independent, external evaluations of the projects we support. In this dynamic, Zenex commissions the evaluation and the contractual relationship is with Zenex. We however recognise that this dynamic can be disempowering as it can take away agency from NPOs.
We try to work through and mitigate the effects of this power relationship in two ways:
Firstly, we insist on a participatory and collaborative process among ourselves, the evaluators and the NPOs. Upfront, we jointly set up an M&E framework and approach. We together participate in a clarificatory process to develop the theory of change and decide on how data will be collected and who will collect it. We also ensure that implementing partners are active evaluation participants through being responsible for collecting monitoring data to feed into the evaluation.
Secondly, we undertake both process and impact evaluations and engage in on-going, frequent feedback sessions to plan corrective actions and implementation changes based on the evaluation data. Process evaluations are important as they allow us to give frequent feedback during a project, and not just at its end. Project adjustments can consequently be made to strengthen the intervention, which results in greater, more meaningful impact.
An important recommendation: in addition to providing direct project costs, funders should provide funding for NPOs to engage in this participatory process.
Strengthening M&E Capacity
NPOs do not often have the resources to employ expert M&E people in their organisations. This perpetuates the power dynamic described above as NPOs are not able to engage in the evaluation process on an equal footing. Very few funders in South Africa want to support NPOs to develop their own M&E systems and capacity. A lot of engagement of NPOs with M&E happens instead through a donor or government commissioning an evaluation from a third-party evaluator. While Zenex commissions external evaluators, we also very deliberately support NPOs to develop their own M&E capacity. We call on the funding community to invest in strengthening the M&E capabilities of NPOs to set up their own M&E systems and employ relevant and experienced human resources. NPOs need to be not only accountable but also learning organisations and M&E actively supports this endeavour.
SAMEA has an important role to play in strengthening NPO capacity in this way. SAMEA should offer capacity building courses that are targeted at and specifically designed for NPOs. Of course, being an NPO itself, SAMEA should also call on members to provide pro bono services in support of this.
Dissemination and utilisation of M&E
We all say evaluation is about learning, but this needs time and resources. We have observed that NPOs are always on a treadmill, moving from one contract to another, trying to ensure their sustainability. There is little time to reflect on learnings and then apply them in their work going forward. This situation is not helping the sector. Instead, NPOs are losing some of their creativity and innovation, and they often experience mission drift as they strive to survive.
All partners in a project need to engage at the end of a project with regard to taking the lessons forward – in other words utilisation of M&E findings. While learner results are important in the high stakes environment of education, true engagement in evaluative thinking will help with not only the refining of organisational strategy and delivery but also the implications for replication, scale and policy. How can funders support dissemination and utilisation? Once again, funders must invest resources to support NPOs to reflect, learn and grow.
In conclusion, as funders have a symbiotic relationship with NPOs, supporting NPOs to do effective M&E strengthens and sustains the broader non-profit sector which, in turn, increases the ability of funders to meet their strategic goals.