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March 26, 2018

Lessons from a Meeting of International Education Funders: Reflections from Zenex Foundation

Zenex Foundation hosted the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) meeting on 26-28 February 2018. The IEFG is a member-led learning and collaborating network for foundations, donor-advised funds, and other private grantmakers. The theme was Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning: Strengthening our Practice and our Field and this was the first time it was held in Africa. The IEFG meeting was a great opportunity for the Zenex team to share ideas and network with other funders working in education. This meeting, through the rich discussions, highlighted the importance of creating spaces for donors to share experiences on what works and what does not work.

While the meeting was a good forum for donors, it also highlighted the need to create spaces for implementers to share and engage. Four themes resonated during the three days and these are (i) building strong M&E systems (ii) considerations for programme design (iii) becoming learning and sharing organisations and (iv) strengthening grantmaking practices. As a Foundation, we drew many lessons from this meeting and we will consider these in our future work in M&E, when designing interventions and in the way that we interact with our partners.

Building strong M&E systems

Since the theme of the meeting was Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning, many of the discussions were centered around what it takes to build strong M&E and learning systems. Our interest in this area is that as an organisation, we understand the importance of M&E and we want to build a strong M&E system which is underpinned by quality data systems and evaluations that can be used to influence education practice and policy in South Africa.

We learnt that the basis of any successful M&E system is an organisational commitment to do M&E, allocation of adequate financial and human resources and a clear M&E framework. Once the fundamentals are in place, organisations must have adequate data management systems.

Zenex Foundation has been involved in M&E practices for over 20 years and through this journey we continued to enhance our M&E practices based on our own experiences and lessons we have learnt from others. Our journey of M&E began with institutionalising M&E practices, followed by efforts to improve the quality of M&E and then a focus on using M&E for learning. We are now focusing on dissemination and utilization.

Considerations for programme design

Zenex Foundation works with partners to co-design education interventions and we are always looking for ways to improve this process during this funders meeting, a key lesson that was reiterated for us was the importance of using information from research, monitoring, and evaluation to design better interventions. While this is important, the conversations regarding designing large-scale interventions offered us an alternative way to think about how to optimise the use of evidence. The overarching lesson during these discussions was derived from a presentation by Benjamin Piper when he said: “simplify interventions- reduce complexity”. We learnt that before embarking on large system-level interventions, it is better to pilot small change and build on that for big change. Implementing multi-layered and complex programmes can lead to challenges in implementation and difficulty when measuring change and attributing the change to an initiative.

Another important consideration for designing programmes is that we must pay attention to context. We cannot assume that a programme that has been successful in one context and will succeed in another context.

Becoming learning and sharing organisations

Zenex Foundation also aspires to be a learning organisation that shares lessons internally and externally and so it was interesting to learn more about what it takes to be a good learning organisation. We learnt that learning should be a systematic and integral part of an organisation, where learning takes place internally and externally.

Regarding how we learn, we were inspired to rethink the way that we perceive ‘programme failure’. Even with the best intentions, sometimes programmes fail and what is important is for us to learn from those failures and focus on improvements. The same applies to evaluations. While it is good to highlight the successes of our interventions, negative findings are also useful as they provide an opportunity for us to learn and make corrections.

During the learning process, collaboration is important and works best when all key stakeholders, including government, implementers, and beneficiaries are involved. Zenex has seen the positive impacts of collaboration in cases where we have involved all stakeholders. Collaborative learning fosters ownership.

Strengthening grantmaking practices

The last theme was around grantmaking practices and some of the factors that enhance or inhibit programme success. During these discussions, donors reflected on the relationship dynamics with grantees. We learnt that there are inherent power dynamics between funders and grantee partners. These power dynamics are inherent in the funding relationship and must be actively managed. A true a partnership is when we are explicit about our expectations and our partners are able to push back when they do not agree. Language, tone and attitude matter during these interactions. Going forward Zenex needs to be more cognisant of these power dynamics and minimise the possible negative impacts on programme success. Another important factor is that we need to be more deliberate about building in an exit phase in the programme design.

Conclusion

The IEFG meeting provided an opportunity for us to reflect on our experiences and share lessons on what has worked well and what the challenges are in Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning in education. It left us with important lessons that we can and will apply in our future work.

 

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