A New Approach: Making MEL Accessible to All

By Lauren Schwaar, Damian Hatton & Yasmin Wright
24th April, 2024

From our vantage point as a social impact consultancy, over the years we have watched organisation after organisation struggle with the impossible tension between being expected to conduct robust monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL), and not having the know-how or resources to pull it off.

The burden of MEL

Today’s philanthropic cycle operates on the premise that in order to secure and sustain funding, delivery organisations must ‘prove’ the value they’re creating by documenting it using validated and validatable data frameworks.

Whilst we would prefer to emphasise ‘improving’ above ‘proving’ (this better aligns MEL efforts with enhancing the value of interventions to communities as opposed to being driven by the need for accountability), neither motivation to carry out MEL is a bad thing in itself. In fact, data and the process of measuring impact accurately is an important part of every development initiative. When done well, this process can benefit many different aspects of an implementation. However, quality MEL can be a time-consuming and convoluted task for practitioners to undertake, especially when they are already strapped for time and resources.

Amongst the many other duties that befall the project manager, the requirement to also invest time and energy into data collection and analysis duties can prove a tremendous burden. So much so that sometimes it’s enough to deter them from taking funding or delivering projects. While the process of MEL remains confusing and labor-intensive, the entire philanthropic ecosystem suffers — from deliverers, to funders, to regulators and ultimately to beneficiaries and communities themselves.

The state of things: Recent research

In November of 2023, Superhighways (a client of ours) and Think Social Tech produced a report that explored this question: “‘How might we better support small charities and community organisations to move forwards with data?”

They performed in-depth research into the current state of data awareness, implementation, use and effectiveness for charities across the UK. Their findings revealed that countless organisations struggle with the burden of data, particularly when it comes to being asked to implement disproportionately complex and unrealistic MEL activities.

So what do we do about this problem? How do we help alleviate the oversized burden that MEL requirements often impose on delivery organisations (including organisations of varying sizes and types within the philanthropic and development ecosystem)?

A path forward

As is being indicated not only by this research but other current studies, as well as by our experience and learnings as a service provider within this space, a few changes could make a world of difference for deliverers and third sector organisations struggling with data and MEL. If these adjustments and shifts began to happen at scale, the entire philanthropic sector could start to operate more smoothly — like oiling a bearing to allow for better and more flexible movement. Here are a few changes we envision for the development sector that could alleviate the current difficulties of MEL:

  • All funders include standard budget lines for MEL activities. If organisations were resourced for the MEL they were required to conduct, the quality of not only their data collection but the quality of their delivery and programming would increase because they wouldn’t be forced to skim resource and time from other areas to put towards a bare-minimum MEL effort.
  • More peer-to-peer learning facilitated in funder cohorts. Delivery organisations don’t have time to read through excess documentation or attend lots of trainings that may or may not answer their immediate MEL questions. Making cohort-style, interactive support opportunities available for delivery managers can help them access answers to questions quickly. This can also help make best practice available for their  specific contexts and within the parameters of their particular funding stream or programme. This has the potential to be a fantastic alternative to general MEL resources.
  • Lighter-touch external support options that leverage existing internal capabilities. MEL support has historically looked like large-scale, externally led and proposal-based consulting exercises that can be cumbersome, expensive and ill-fitting for today’s delivery needs. What is increasingly needed is more nimble MEL support offerings that can be tailored to context, targeted to gaps in internal capacity/ knowledge and that are ultimately more affordable.

Putting this into practice

This all sounds good, but operationalising these ideas can sometimes prove a daunting process. If your organisation faces challenges with burdensome MEL requirements and lacks the resources and support to meet them, our team is launching an Impact CoPilot programme that hopes to respond to these challenges. It offers light-touch, affordable assistance that works with and optimises your existing capabilities to help you fulfill your project or initiative’s MEL needs, without breaking your staff’s spirit or the bank!

At inFocus, we think MEL service offerings need to better recognise that for many organisations, all that is required to succeed is some well-targeted technical advice and guidance to help them move in the right direction, along with timely access to the right training, templates and tools for staff and volunteers to use. This can often be enough for an organisation to begin its MEL journey.

If you or your organisation is looking for a low-cost, flexible and time efficient solution to address your Impact Assessment and Planning challenges, our Impact CoPilot service has been created with you in mind. Book a free call with an experienced MEL expert to discuss whether it is a good fit for your current needs and if not, well we’ll aim to point you in the right direction at the very least!

If you are interested in hearing more, contact us or book a free discovery call today.