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Why your non-profit CEO needs to be the M&E officer

Your eyes might not be shut, you might not be snoring, or drooling on your pillow, but that glazed look in your eyes tells me that you’re definitely not as into this subject as I am.

Why not? Well everyone knows that monitoring and evaluation is tables, indicators, log-frames, databases and statistics and that those weirdos people who work in M&E just can’t get enough of those excel spreadsheets. Let’s face it: that’s boring.

But is that really what monitoring and evaluation is about? I don’t think it is. All those tools and methodologies are really just that, tools and methodologies. M&E is the questions that those tools and methodologies seek to answer, and that’s not boring at all. In fact it’s the most important thing your organisation should be doing, and it’s something that needs to come from right at the top.

M&E is essentially about asking three fundamental questions:

  1. Are we doing what we said we would do?
  2. Are we making any difference?
  3. Are these the right things to be doing?

These three questions look at internal validity, our ‘impact’ and finally at our relevancy. Within this come questions on our specific approach. Are we efficient? Are we focusing on the right partners? Donors? Most crucially, are we meeting communities’ needs? Part of these questions is learning from our experiences to improve our work, and this is what M&E is all about.

Too often M&E, much like communications, and (insert your area of work) is seen as an add-on, a luxury, or a tick-box exercise to appease funders. But M&E is not a technical issue. M&E is an organisational change issue. It is so much more than log-frames and indicators.

Monitoring and evaluation necessitates an organisational culture that is open to questioning the very fundamentals of its work, approach, and very existence. Many organisations are not ready to question these things, and therefore the true value of monitoring and evaluation is lost, and it is used mainly for accountability to donors with indicators that do not reflect the reality of projects or outcomes. We are all familiar with that version of M&E.

But if an organisation’s main use for monitoring and evaluation is learning and organisational change, then the possibilities for improving our work are immense. This requires a culture that is open to admitting failure, which embraces constructive criticism and strives for excellence. Most importantly, it requires strong collaborative processes during the planning and design phases for projects.

M&E is about learning and changing. It needn’t rely heavily on statistics, indicators or log-frames. None of that is valuable without the right culture. In fact, it is meaningless without the right culture.

To use an extreme example, it is far more valuable to have an organisation that sets informal meetings and asks these questions without any data collection methods than to have one that has elaborate data collection processes without seeking to truly answer these questions. This is where the importance of organisational leadership comes in to play.

Emanuel text box

What does your boss do?

A CEO of a non-profit has two main roles. Their first role is to look at the internal running of the organisation, which is essentially M&E. Their second role is external relations, which is essentially networking.

nonprofit donor loyalty primerLooking internally – M&E for learning and change

The real role of any CEO in a non-profit is to provide leadership, to facilitate planning and to work with the board to set strategic goals.

This person facilitates discussions on the organisation’s strategy that should be wholly based on a planning and learning process. But how can you do this?

That means creating an organisational culture that enables staff to talk openly, and candidly, about everything that comes under the scope of the organisation, where no topic is taboo. That means challenging salaries (gasp!), where we work, how we work, and with whom we work. It should all be on the table. It means creating a culture where constructively evaluating everything that you do becomes embedded in the organisation.  It becomes ‘just the way we do things around here.’

Strong, clear processes need to be developed and formalised to ensure that this culture leads to constructive change and planning, that prohibits over analysis and paralysis but that creates avenues for change. Once this happens, the relevancy and the contribution that your organisation makes to social change will skyrocket.

But because your eye is not just on making a difference but also on the bottom line, here’s the second reason to embed this M&E culture into your organisation.

Looking externally – M&E for communications

Getting the money in… It is the biggest worry for most senior management teams. But what tools do we have? Networking, communications, external relations and fundraising. That difficult sales pitch. But aren’t these things all pretty much about the same thing? Aren’t they just about telling good stories?

The reality is that storytelling is what makes or breaks an NGO in terms of funding and this has a direct link to monitoring and evaluation. In fact, it is an essential link.

Monitoring and evaluation provides you with those stories, with the information that is key, not just for looking at relevance, learning and change, but for delivering your message.

By integrating M&E and communications into the very fabric of the organisation’s culture, you will be able to generate incredible content and be able to use that content to tell stories. It can be as simple as something like including Most Significant Change in approaches to projects. But what is truly remarkable is that M&E and communications are not often thought of as going hand-in-hand.

It is true that you need a great communications team to craft the right messages for your audience, but good communications staff can do little without information. That is why investing in M&E that can bring out successes, challenges and stories is so important.

Two customers

Most NGO’s are dinosaurs. We all know that if NGO’s had to compete in the private sector they would very quickly cease to exist. This is mainly because of the fact that NGO’s operate in a unique and conflicted way.

In fact, NGO’s serve two customers with radically different needs. The first customer group are the beneficiaries of our work, the reason for the existence of the organisation and where our focus should always be. Unfortunately most organisations cannot work with only this group; they also have to work with the second customer group.

The second customer group is, of course, the money. We can all feel like slaves to donors and the funders of our work. Both these groups expect different things from an organisation, and inevitably, because of the basic need for organisations to survive, we focus on the second group.

Slowly but surely, the way we work is affected by this focus, and it skews our objectives and goals. It hampers our very ability to effectively put our first set of customers, the beneficiaries of our work, in charge.

This can change. One of the main reasons that real M&E is not part of almost all NGO’s cultures is for the fear of alienating or upsetting this second group of customers. But the fact is these customers should, and would, embrace this culture. This is what they are looking for.

It just requires leaders with enough insight and confidence to implement this kind of culture in their organisations and the results would be remarkable.

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Emanuel Souvairan

Emanuel Souvarian is Director of DevEd, a non-profit organisation working in education and international development. You can follow him on Twitter @ESouvarian.

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5 thoughts on “Why your non-profit CEO needs to be the M&E officer”

  1. It’s interesting to think about how this plays out in the context of small or informal community organisations. M&E should be primarily about learning & change but M&E as experienced by these groups (often the end recipients of funding) is a fundamentally extractive process; a lot of the data they are required to produce is only useful to the donor or NGO wishing to compile high level numbers. Funders/intermediaries often hope or *tell* CBOs that “this process/report will be useful for you” but is it really? We need to find ways of building a learning/change M&E approach that serves not only the purposes of donors and NGOs, but also of communities and CBOs.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. What I alluded to at the end here was that if true M&E is to be possible, organisations (including CBO’s) need to be able to challenge donors and NGO’s by focusing their work on this first group of customers, the ‘beneficiaries’ of our work (for want of a better word). At first donors are likely to be resistant, but the good ones will come around, and in the end the organisation will be more successful for it. There is a great TED talk on why organisations and NGO’s should admit failure here:

      http://www.ted.com/talks/david_damberger_what_happens_when_an_ngo_admits_failure.html

      Thanks,

      Emanuel

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