packing a bag – tools to help organizations learn

Remember those bags that flew through the air on the road not taken?  While I had plenty of clothes, the plan was to pack another bag in Yaoundé.  This second bag wouldn’t be stuffed with underwear.  Instead it would be filled with tools.

My bouncy, dusty trip to Yaoundé was made not on a lark.  I was meeting with other volunteers and VSO staff to design a “harmonized” Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) system that could be used by VSO Cameroon, and all its partners and volunteers to support organisational learning.


Big words…  but what do they mean?

Here’s an analogy… How many of you have taken Social Science Research courses?  Would you ever have collected your data and then handed it to someone else to analyze?  If you had done this, what would you have learned? Not much.

Yet that is exactly what many organisations around the world currently do!  VSO Cameroon and most of its partners too!

You see, international development is a “business” not simply driven by the needs of communities and beneficiaries.  It is also shaped by the expectations and priorities of donors and funders – whether they be governments, foundations or private citizens.  Each wants to know what their money is buying.

They ask… What are the results?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this.  These are questions we should all be asking of projects.  However, each funder has their own “form” that needs to be filled out, their own data sheet to submit.   Put together these sheets turn into a very large pile.

Sometimes “foreign experts” descend and evaluate programmes, take their notes away and produce voluminous reports.  Other times the local organizations – or VSO volunteers – collect data and send it off to another country for analysis.

For example, the Canadian government’s priority is accountability to its citizens. So, they want to know how much food was handed out, how many workshops run, how many people reached.  Sometimes they ask whether these changed anything on the ground … but not always.

Where’s the chance for improvement? How can you learn from experience if you never reflect on what is actually happening?

What were you trying to achieve? What worked?  What didn’t?  Most importantly … Why?    If organisations don’t seek to understand why change happens – or doesn’t – they can’t determine how to improve.  So much time is spent on filling in forms that local organisations often don’t have time for reflection.

This breeds a culture of reporting, not of learning and improving.

Our little group of M&E is working to change that.  We’re taking all the different questions, looking for common elements, and putting them back together into a few tools that make sense for partners.  We’re building in key questions that help them to identify lessons learned and figure out where the change lies.

VSO International still gets its information.  The Canadian government still gets its data on “results”.  But more importantly the partner organizations – supported by VSO volunteers –will adapt these few flexible tools to help them answer the tough “why” questions.

By reframing the many funder-driven questions, our hope is that both VSO Cameroon and its partners will have more time – and capacity –to learn from their past efforts.

After all, organizations that learn are organizations that improve.

So, we’re packing a bag full of tools that – hopefully – will satisfy everyone.  What will be learned? What will change? We’re all just need to wait and see.

~ by Greg Spira on January 29, 2010.

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