Step 1: Determine what exactly needs monitoring and evaluating
Step 1 of creating an M&E plan involves understanding what parts of the project needs to be monitored and evaluated. Typically, the activities are monitored to evaluate and prove that the objectives were met and results achieved. This should already be seen in the project plan and the log frame.
In general, it is better to err on the side of performing more M&E instead of less, so long as M&E does not interfere too much in implementing the program. Most donors like seeing data, and data can be useful to the implementing organizations as well.
Step 2: Define and agree on the performance indicators which will be used
An effective M&E plan requires defining performance indicators, which are tools used in measuring the effect of a program.
Performance indicators give a sense of what is achieved. For example, counting the number of households keeping their surroundings clean and hygienic before and after the project, or tracking the number of women participating in training programs. Both of these examples could be good performance indicators of how well a program is working. There are two types of performance indicators: process indicators and results indicators.
- Process indicators define the indicators for a process or an activity, such as the number of women participating in a training on gender development. Process indicators answer questions such as: How is the project progressing? Is the project reaching the beneficiaries? How many actions have been taken?
- Results indicators refer to the indicators that show the result achieved from implementing the project, such as the number of women aware of gender rights. Results indicators show what effect the activities had. They answer questions such as: What has changed since implementing the project? How many people have been effected? What is the quality of the change?
Step 3: Indicate the risks and assumptions inherent to the project
Step 3 is to think about risks and assumptions. Risks and assumptions are external conditions that are not under the control of the project or organization.
Projects span a long period of time and often have to be planned well in advance. This means project planners often have to predict the future in determining what events beyond their control might occur that could affect the project. While no one is able to perfectly predict the future, organizations can think of what possible problems may occur that could affect the project.
Risks are possible external factors that could come in and negatively affect the project. Risks to a project might include the chance of natural disasters occurring, a change in government policy, a change in donor focus etc.
Assumptions are external factors which are assumed to occur or supposed to be consistent. An NGO makes the assumption that the community’s willingness to host a project will not change, prices in budget will remain constant, laws affecting the programs will not change etc.
Donors often dislike funding risky projects, so many applicants are naturally hesitant to explain all the possible risks in a project. However, surprises are an inevitability in the real world and proper identification of risks can convince a donor that the applicant is well-positioned to handle anything that occurs.
Equally important is to describe mitigation strategies or plans on how the organization will react to the listed contingencies. For example, if natural disasters are a risk, explain that emergency supplies and food will be stocked in all program locations and multiple forms of communication are in place to maintain contact. If a change in government policy could shut down an office, show that backups of all files are stored in another safe location and the project can still be operated from a sister office or remotely. If a donor is refocusing and not planning on renewing funds, show that other grant applications are in progress and that earned income can sustain the project in the meantime.
Step 4: Take a baseline measurement using the indicators before the project begins
A baseline study is a survey of the status quo of the community or beneficiaries using set indicators before the project begins which will be used as a base to see how well the project achieves its objectives. A baseline study is of core importance and should always take place before project activities begin. The entire evaluation of the project will be based on the baseline study and its quality will determine the quality of the outcomes of the evaluation process as well. Thus, it is very important to be careful in deciding upon the indicators and what kind of data to collect and include.
As seen in the example above, the performance measurement of indicators gives this organization the possibility to track success and progress and thus makes it easy to identify bumps in the road and challenges. Even if an organization is not required by the donor to hand in progress reports, it makes a lot of sense to monitor the progress on the indicators for internal use.
Determine a method of performing a baseline study that uses the indicators previously determined and is replicable. In general, it is advisable to set up the baseline study broadly, as it is usually better to end with too much information than too little. Collecting data in the field can be costly and time-consuming, and not something that is easily re-done if some information was missed. Additionally, data can be useful in many other areas outside M&E. It is always advisable to have a broad data pool which can be used for different purposes such as future project ideas, future applications, reports and brochures. The more concrete information gathered about the target population, the better.
Step 5: Continue monitoring through the project regularly
Usually, monitoring has to be done regularly at short-time intervals i.e. monthly or quarterly. The regular time interval should be chosen in advance and there should also be a plan to use the same indicators under similar conditions each time the study is replicated. This way, the acquired data can be directly compared over time.
Most monitoring is carried out by an internal team with input from project staff. Quarterly monitoring could involve higher level staff like the NGO’s director or management. A (semi-) annual review or evaluation can also include external consultants, donors and even community members. If changes need to be made to the project, this can be discussed in such a review meeting.
Step 6: Use the collected information to make decisions and perform an evaluation
At the end of the project, a final evaluation helps in reviewing how much the project has achieved. While monitoring is almost always done within the organization by its own staff, sometimes it can be required that the evaluation is done by outsiders i.e. consultants, as it can be very important that the evaluation is objective.
With the evaluation, organizations want to find out if the project was worthwhile, achieved its goals and was implemented efficiently. It is also determined if there had been any unintended outcomes and if those were negative or positive. The evaluation also normally comprises of a cost-efficiency analysis to see if the money was spent responsibly and effectively.
Although it is relatively easy to measure outcomes given a good baseline study, it is very difficult to actually evaluate impact. It is very difficult to establish a definite connection of cause between project activities and outcomes, as there are many other variables that have to be taken into consideration. Impact assessment can only be implemented when the dataset is very big and some very clear connections can be drawn. Otherwise, outcomes and results can only be described without claiming causality.