Whenever I hear people lamenting the difficulty of monitoring and evaluating projects and certainly whenever I encounter good projects with feeble monitoring efforts, I wonder why more people are not taking advantage of a widely-available expert workforce that regularly takes on new projects without asking for any payment.
All around the world and especially in the “publish-or-perish” universe of North American academia, there are researchers (professors, associate professors and graduate students alike) who are scouring the earth for new things to research and write about. For many academics, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to gather the data about which they hope to write. For them, this process is expensive, time-consuming and often subject to protective legislature and intimidating review committees.
Meanwhile, we in the development community are usually able to survey our target audiences as often as we like and with relative ease. When we put together our project plans and proposals, nobody will question our decision to invest real money in collecting data about our programs. At the very least, we can organize the implementation of basic print surveys and qualitative interviews. Where the development community seems to run a little bit weak is in the design of these surveys and, even more so, in their analysis. This is precisely where academia excels.
For nearly six years now, I’ve enjoyed a collaboration with social scientists at a U.S. university that has added incredible value to the monitoring and evaluation that I bring to a variety of social and educational projects. My partners in this effort have been gaining access to valuable data that they are motivated to analyze and discuss, some of which has proven publishable in academic journals. We both get exactly what we need from one another and we are all paid for our work by other sources. This means that our partnership operates in an unusually money and paperwork-free arena, which inoculates it against any number of potential stresses. Every time I approach them with a new potential project idea, they are interested in working on it. This still surprises me every time.
Here's what I suggest if you want to forge partnerships that improve your M&E:
1. When you are at the project design phase of a new initiative, consider the impacts that you are hoping to achieve. Then determine which academic discipline would have the greatest interest in your achievements. Create a contact list of academics who specialize in the area to which you will be making your contribution. In order to populate this list, I suggest you:
a. Prioritize academics at institutions that you and your team have attended or to which you and your project are affiliated. We all know the importance of networks.
b. Ensure that you approach some academics who are not already known and famous. If you identify some academics who would be interested in your project and you happen to know that they are already deeply involved in development work or with their successful careers in general, look at who else is in their department. Look for younger or associate professors with more to prove. Look into departments at universities that rival the university at which your famous academics are housed.
c.Consider reaching out to academics who come from one of the countries you are working in, or who come from the region that you are working in. Homesick professors are often quite willing to help and also require less background when they understand your context.
d. Social scientists, because of the general nature of their discipline, will often be your most appropriate points of contact, especially if you are trying to affect behavior change in a population.
2.Know what you want to prove before reaching out to potential academic partners. They will be able to help you a great deal in the practical matters of designing your M&E material; but they will be more likely to have confidence in you and your project if you can articulate clear objectives that you want to prove. Don’t get into this level of detail in your first correspondence; but have it sitting ready before you initiate the discussions.
3. Know what sort of data you will be able to provide them. Be ready to talk about how many people you will be able to survey and how often. Be mindful that your academic partners may need for you to cleanse your data of any identifying information before you share it with them—especially if you are working with young people. Showing an awareness that you might need to process your data for them will also help to build their confidence in your team.
4.Offer to involve your academic partners in drafting your surveys and in preparing any interview questions. Be open to their suggestions and to the possibility that they may suggest taking your M&E in some unforeseen directions that could improve the perspective and strength of your program. In general, treat them as partners and not as employees or contractors. At any point, they can drop your project cold.
5. Mix established matrices with new ones. Especially when you are dealing with social scientists, you may find that they suggest using already established matrices to measure, for example, happiness or self-confidence. Take advantage of established question sets even if they are not 100% relevant to your program. If they contain a solid portion of questions relevant to your program, it is worth including the entire set because of how much easier it will be for your academic partners to publish your results. Don’t be shy about trying to create new question sets and matrices of your own. This is an exercise that academics enjoy and a good team building experience.
6. Be clear, from the beginning, about any potential sensitivities of your donor or organization. Protect and insulate your partners from involvement in internal political discussions that don't concern their M&E. Spell out any limitations on how you can each speak about or publicize your collaboration and avoid misunderstandings by anticipating them. No other party to this equation will be able to do this for you. Also, don't assume that they would like you to pass their contact information to all of your colleagues without checking first. Respecting each other's boundaries is critical.
With some planning and focused outreach, you're project's M&E can be robust and externally validated. With a little time, you may even have results published in a reputable journal that reflect the accomplishments of your team. Plus, if your project is absolutely not working, your academic partners are not going to sugar coat it for you! Good times.