Our simple guide articulates the key components and important steps in developing a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) plan. Our intention is to help you plan your M&E more strategically, so that your project can achieve the intended results. Find out how and when to transform your M&E vision into implementation, when to design an M&E framework, how to collect useful data, how to disseminate and utilise results, and more.
What is a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) plan?
A monitoring and evaluation plan is a guide that explains the goals and objectives of an M&E strategy and its key elements. Let’s try and explain this concept in simple words – an M&E plan is like a roadmap that helps to define, implement, track and improve a monitoring and evaluation strategy within a particular project or a group of projects; it states everything that needs to happen from the project planning phase until the project reaches its goal and creates the intended impact.
So, what is this ‘everything’ that is incorporated into an M&E plan? An M&E plan includes the following elements:
- A proposed timeline for M&E
- Relevant M&E questions to ask at different stages of the project life cycle
- Different methodologies
- An effective implementation strategy
- Expected results
- Defining who would implement the various components of the M&E plan
- Appropriate M&E tools for data collection
- Identifying where data would be stored and how it would be analysed
- Defining how M&E findings would be reported to donors, stakeholders and internal staff members to ensure project improvement, transparency and data-driven decision making
- Other required resources and capacities
One thing to keep in mind – the specifics of each project’s M&E plan will differ on a project-by-project basis, however, they should all follow the same basic structure and include the same key elements.
When should we design an M&E plan?
Monitoring and evaluation plan should be created right in the beginning when the project interventions are being planned. Planning project interventions and designing an M&E strategy should go hand in hand. Planning the M&E this early on also helps to ensure that there is a robust system in place to monitor every little intervention and activity of the project and evaluate their success. It also helps the project managers and other staff members associated with the project to get a clear picture of key objectives and ensure the project is on the right track.
It is important to involve project managers, evaluators, donors, and other stakeholders in the designing of the M&E plan, as stakeholder involvement in the early phase ensures the applicability and sustainability of M&E activities. The idea is to identify opportunities and barriers as a team in the planning stage with a focus on problem-solving and maximizing impact.
Step-by-step guide to designing an M&E plan
Developing an M&E plan is a dynamic and multi-faceted process as it involves merging and connecting different elements of M&E into one holistic system to measure the performance of interventions and impact of a project. It is recommended to design the M&E work plan in a manner that it’s flexible so adjustments could be made anytime within the context of the work plan to account for issues that may arise during the M&E process.
Before we begin, it is essential to understand the rationale behind developing the M&E plan, the key elements that will be included and the steps required in developing it. Below, we have attempted to break down these elements into different steps for more clarity.
Step 1: Identifying the focal problem and the need for a project
Before we begin to conceptualise a project, it is essential to understand the underlying problem is the community of interest and explore what’s causing it, what interventions could solve this problem and how long would the intervention need to last for it to be effective. The project will thus be designed based on the need for a certain assumed intervention.
There are many strategic ways to identify the focal problem and its causes, but one common way organisations define these are through a ‘Problem Tree Analysis.’ This is a group activity that involves input from project team members, stakeholders and beneficiaries who can contribute relevant technical and local knowledge.
The first step is to define the main problem that all the team members mutually agree upon and visualise it on a flip-chart or a white board as the trunk of a tree. Next, through many rounds of discussions and dialogues, the team identifies the causes of the problem and visualises them as the roots of the tree. Finally, the team brainstorms on the potential consequences of the problem and exhibits them as the branches of the tree. Team members can also add additional branches for solutions, concerns and decisions.
This is an effective practice as it maps out a realistic picture of a problem from economic, political and socio-cultural dimensions, while building a shared sense of purpose, action and understanding amongst the involved parties.
Step 2: Planning the project
Once we have fully grasped the underlying problem and mapped out its causes and consequences, we can begin to plan our project.
Identifying project goals, objectives and inputs/activities
Before we begin the groundwork of M&E plan, it is essential to understand where we need to go and how we are going to get there. This is possible by identifying clear and concise goals, objectives and relevant activities.
- Goals: The final impacts on the lives of the beneficiaries or the environment that the project intends to achieve
- Objectives: longer-term change in the environment or the behaviour of project beneficiaries that is needed to achieve the overall goal
- Activities/Input: direct interventions and processes of the project
Identifying key players
This step involves identifying key internal and external stakeholders who will be involved in the project or who will benefit from the project. The key stakeholders include the project team, donors, stakeholders in the wider community (community groups, networks, residents etc.), partner organisations, local and national policy makers, other government bodies/ministries and the project beneficiaries.
Identifying monitoring and evaluation questions
In this step, program managers or M&E specialists with input from all stakeholders and donors identify the most important M&E questions the project will investigate. M&E questions, when answered will allow the managers to determine their internal capacity and processes in terms of vision, leadership, budget, management, sustainability etc. The M&E questions also allow the managers to gauge the relevance, effectiveness, impact and contributions of the interventions at different stages of the project life-cycle.
By identifying these questions early on in the process, project managers or M&E specialists are prepared to design tools, instruments, and methodologies required to gather the needed information. M&E questions may require revisions every now and then depending on the status of the project.
Roles and responsibilities
This is another important step to include while planning a project because defining the roles of project staff members and stakeholders early on will clarify who would be in charge of what activities, including communications, project management, project design and implementation, data collection, data analysis, reporting etc. and avoid unnecessary confusions later on during project implementation.
Cost estimates for the monitoring and evaluation activities
It is essential to allocate tentative budget and provide an explanation of the needed resources in the planning phase. This includes – money and personnel, capacity development, infrastructure, etc. M&E experts suggest allocating approximately 5 to 10 percent of total project costs for M&E programming.
Understanding the overall context
It is important to understand the political and administrative structures of the community where your project will take place, along with the roles and influences of existing policies that may affect project implementation. Likewise, it is also recommended to start thinking about the potential risks and unexpected circumstances that might arise during project implementation, for eg., any reluctance on the key players’ part for cooperation etc.
Once a clear picture of the overall goals and objectives of the project are defined, the key players are identified and the context is well understood, it is time to select an appropriate approach and sketch out the detailed design of the implementation plan.
Step 3: Defining a monitoring and evaluation framework
By the time we reach this step, we should have sufficient background knowledge to design a framework. A framework increases understanding of the project’s goals and objectives and defines the relationships between factors key to implementation. A framework also articulates the external and internal elements that could affect the project’s success.
It is important to keep in mind that there is no one size fits all when it comes to frameworks. Different kinds of projects use different kinds of frameworks, the best way to determine your ideal type is by understanding the scope of your project and then choosing the one that best fits the purpose. These three types of M&E frameworks are widely used in the development and humanitarian sectors:
- Theory of Change – A theory of change shows a bigger picture (which could sometimes get compex) of all the underlying processes and possible pathways leading to long term behavioral changes in the institutional, individual or community levels, while visualising all the possible evidence and assumptions that are linked to those changes.
- Logical Framework (LogFrame)/Logic Model – Unlike the theory of change, a LogFrame is to the point and focuses only on one specific pathway that a project deals with and creates a neat and orderly structure for it. This makes it easier for the project managers and stakeholders to monitor project implementation.
- Results Framework – A results framework emphasises on results to provide clarity around the key project objectives. In other words, it outlines how each of the intermediate results/ outputs and outcomes relates to and facilitates the achievement of each objective, and how objectives relate to each other and the ultimate goal. Want some tips on how to design a Results Framework? Click here.
These three frameworks may have some differences in practice, but there are also some common elements that run through them, like the need for the identification and involvement of key stakeholders; the need for well-defined goals, objectives, activities and outputs, the same general purpose of describing how the project will lead to results and the need for ongoing monitoring and evaluation.
Step 4: Identifying relevant indicators
Once the program’s goals and objectives are defined and an outline of an M&E framework is in place, it is time to define indicators for tracking progress towards achieving those goals. A good mix of process, outcome and impact indicators is always recommended.
Process indicators track the progress of the project. These indicators help us get clarity on whether activities are being implemented as planned. On the other hand, outcome indicators track how successful program activities have been at achieving project objectives. Unlike process indicators, these indicators focus more on what the project is trying to achieve rather than how it is being achieved. Impact indicators measure the long term goals or impacts of a project.
Here’s a simple example:
Step 5: Identifying data collection tools and methodologies
After creating monitoring indicators, it is time to identify and collect relevant data to demonstrate the actual results of the project interventions against our indicators. M&E experts recommend to involve the project team and stakeholders in the discussion to make the process more participatory. Before collecting data, it is a good idea to discuss these questions as a team:
- Will the data be qualitative, quantitative, or a combination of the two?
- What baseline data already exists?
- What are the most relevant methods and tools to collect new data?
- How will the collected data be recorded?
- How and when will the data be analysed?
- Who will be responsible for data collection and analysis?
The golden rule to follow here is to collect fewer useful data properly than a lot of data poorly. It is important for project managers to take into consideration staff time and resource costs of data collection to see what is reasonable.
What is a good way to determine the most relevant source of monitoring data? This depends largely on what each indicator is trying to measure. The program will likely need multiple data sources to answer all the monitoring and evaluation questions. Data sources could be participants themselves, literature, national statistics, the whole community, individual homes or anyone or anything that can help to generate the relevant data. Once the appropriate sources have been selected, the next step would be to decide on the appropriate tools and methods to collect the data from the data source. Some common types of data collection methods are as follows:
- Focus groups
- Case studies
- Content analysis of materials etc.
Apart from the traditional pen and paper methods, there are many digital data collection tools available in the market to help data collectors gather data faster and more efficiently. These online or offline tools also help to avoid human errors that can arise during data collection and input. Some widely used data collection tools are KoBo Toolbox, CommCare, SurveyCTO, ONA etc.
Once the process of data collection is determined, it is also necessary to decide how frequently data will be collected. This will depend on the needs of the project, donor requirements, available resources, and the timeline of the intervention. Most data will be continuously gathered by the program, while others at certain intervals. Gathered data is usually recorded every few months, depending on the agreed upon timeline. Want to know how to prepare your dataset for analysis? Click here.
Step 6: Reviewing M&E Work Plan (M&E practitioners recommend conducting this on a periodic basis)
Now that we’ve mapped out our indicators and data collection plan, it is time to revisit our M&E plan to see our progress toward the project goals and objectives and revise it based on the current needs of the project – what is the status of the project? How well are the activities being implemented? Are they generating intended outcomes or to what extent are our interventions in line with the needs of the community? What needs to be improved, added or changed at this point? etc.
At this stage, it is also good to revisit the fund allocation for the evaluation and see if our plan fits well within the available budget and resources. Roles and responsibilities for each component of the work plan should also be clearly explained. Would we need to outsource a particular segment of the evaluation to an external party?
Reviewing our M&E work plan also allows new team members, if any, to familiarise with the project and get a sense of what his/her responsibilities are and how the other roles and responsibilities are divided amongst the group.
Step 7: Reporting
Once data is gathered and analysed, it must be reported to the relevant members as regularly as possible to discuss and interpret findings. The intention of reporting should always be to provide clarity on the most up-to-date results to staff members and stakeholders about the progress, success and failure of the project and to help them make data-driven decisions for modifications of project components and to develop future work plans as necessary. Also, data must be reported so that it can increase knowledge and make contributions to the related field for the future projects and practices to be more effective. If the project results and data are not dissemination adequately then it might lead to duplicate monitoring and evaluation efforts.
Thus, the M&E work plan should include an effective strategy for internal dissemination of data among the project team, as well as wider dissemination among stakeholders, donors and external audiences. The plan should also articulate what format will be used to share the findings – formal meetings with donors and stakeholders, written reports, oral presentations, program materials or community and stakeholder feedback sessions.
Besides the traditional reporting techniques, many organisations are also opting for digital M&E tools and software like TolaData. These tools usually come with dashboard and portfolio features that allow users to visualise data into graphs, charts, reports and images for real-time reporting. These tools make reporting so much easier and help organisations to provide more clarity on their progress and ensure transparency and accountability at all levels.
We hope our step-by-step guide will serve as a helpful roadmap to develop and implement monitoring and evaluation that is relevant, effective, timely, and credible. According to the experts, if M&E is planned and executed well, it can become a powerful tool for social and political change – all the more reason to make M&E an integral component of our development and humanitarian projects. Have questions or concerns about this article? Please feel free to reach out to us.
- Guide to monitoring and evaluation | UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
- Developing a monitoring and evaluation work plan | FHI 360
- Developing a monitoring and evaluation plan for ICT for education | TINA JAMES AND JONATHAN MILLER
- Step-by-step guide to create your M&E plan | EVALUATION TOOLBOX
- How to develop a monitoring and evaluation plan | COMPASS