July 6, 2018

Perspectives on budgeting and costs of monitoring and evaluation (M&E)

Written by Gail Campbell

I am a strong proponent of M&E as a key lever in evidence-based grantmaking. It definitely adds a cost to the donor and I am sharing my perspective on four key issues to do with budgeting for, and the costs of, monitoring and evaluation (M&E):

  1. The importance of allocating grant funding to monitoring and evaluation.
  2. Budgeting for monitoring and evaluation.
  3. Funding for the dissemination of evaluation results.
  4. Strengthening M&E in the sector

The importance of allocating of grant funding to monitoring and evaluation

Over the years, Zenex Foundation has been questioned on the amount of money that has been allocated to evaluations. The frequent refrain is that the money could be better spent on beneficiaries, and this is something of a moral conundrum for those of us doing grant making in a context where the education need is so great.

Evaluations are indeed an additional cost to project costs, but it is important to do them. We need to undertake both formative as well as summative evaluations, as it is important for us to learn as we implement. Because the Zenex Foundation makes learning the primary purpose of evaluations rather than only being about accountability, our experience is that partners have found them to be valuable. However, as evaluations are ultimately about value judgements on the impact of interventions, evaluations are not always well received. It is difficult for both donors and partners to get feedback on projects or components of projects which are not working. However, we learn from success and learn even more from failures.

Budgeting for monitoring and evaluation

When I first started at the Zenex Foundation, we dedicated 10% of the project costs to evaluation. However, we don’t slavishly follow the 10% guideline anymore as it’s more effective to budget according to the defined purpose of an evaluation as well as its value to project partners and the broader sector. We don’t commission an external evaluation of every project and thus we have been able to keep the overall costs of evaluations within the benchmark of 10% of our total project funding per annum.

An evaluation can cost as much as 30% of a project’s costs. I had an experience of this three years ago when the Zenex Foundation evaluated a pilot of a school-based internships in Initial Teacher Education. We had the project evaluated so we could establish the efficacy a of the model and to determine whether the pilot could be replicated. In order to do this, the evaluation needed to consider the various components of the programme – the at-school mentoring, the wrap-around support provided to the intern, the academic distance learning model, the resources needed by the managing agency and tracked the interns in their first teaching role – in order to make an argument about the replicability of the model. This made it a time-consuming and the evaluation exceeded the 10% guideline.

We as donors need to set up our own internal monitoring systems and as well as commission external evaluations of the projects we supports. Both have cost implications for the donor and are both equally important.

The importance of dedicating funding to the dissemination of results

The schooling sector is hugely researched in South Africa. Government, researchers, NGOs, evaluators and donors all collect data from school. Our experience is that little of this gets back into the sector and indeed back to schools. It is vital that we donors take responsibility for giving feedback to project participants, implementing partners, government partners as well as the broader sector, and to allocate funding to do so. Feedback on evaluation results to schools has been most illuminating. Principals and schools management teams have embraced the findings and using the evidence for more informed planning and setting targets to improve learner performance. Dissemination costs include for example, packaging of the findings of evaluations into various fit-for-purpose knowledge products, events with various partners to share information, sharing on both digital and face-to-face platforms. Doing this helps to build a body of knowledge and evidence about what works and what does not work in education today. Dissemination is the first step to promoting uptake and usage and then the real value of M&E is attained.

Strengthening M&E in the sector

As donors, we request monitoring data from our partners and we must take cognisance of the fact that this has a cost implication for partners I am of the view that donors need to fund the setup of monitoring systems and contribute to the ongoing human resource costs in NGO’s. While is monitoring data is importance for donor reporting, is also assists NGOs in obtaining real-time feedback on implementation and make adjustments accordingly. The need for monitoring data should not be only an externally-imposed condition of donors but be part of the standard processes and procedures of an NGOs. Over the years, the Zenex Foundation has been increasingly supporting our NGO partners to set up M&E systems.

As proponents of M&E, Zenex has also realised the importance of strengthening the M&E eco-system and the pool of experienced evaluators. This includes strengthening M&E at institutional academic level, supporting continued professional development and supporting M&E voluntary associations. We are currently completely a research project on the M&E landscape to better inform future strengthening initiatives.

Therefore, M&E costs are not merely 10% of project costs. We need to take a holistic approach to funding M&E. Government is increasingly leading the charge in M&E. More and more donors and NGO’s are recognising the importance of M&E. Through experience, I can really attest to the value of M&E to informing the strategic direction of Zenex, as well as contributing to learning in the education sector.