7a. What is “MERL”?
“MERL” is an acronym for four related elements of project design and implementation: Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting, and Learning. You may have heard some of these terms used in different combinations; perhaps the most common of these is “M&E” (monitoring and evaluation), although it’s common also to see MEL and MER. Although these terms are often listed together, they refer to different processes and procedures, all of which are important to project design and implementation. In this chapter, we will describe what these terms mean and explain how they relate to the design of a good small grant proposal.
Monitoring is the collection and analysis of data and information concerning the project’s progress. The project management team conducts monitoring throughout the project’s implementation phase. The monitoring framework tells the management team how they are doing with respect to achieving the project’s goals and objectives and if the project is being implemented according to the plan.
Monitoring generally addresses questions about progress towards specific activities and outputs (e.g., Are we training the number of people we planned to train? Are the people in our training sessions learning the skills we planned for them to learn?). Monitoring allows the project management team to understand what parts of the project are working and where some adjustments may be needed to keep the project’s implementation on track. During the proposal stage, you will need to develop an effective monitoring plan that is connected to the activities, outputs, and outcomes of your project. The funder is likely to scrutinize your monitoring plan.
Evaluation is the broad, systematic and periodic assessment of a project. This is generally conducted after the project has been completed (although in some cases there is a mid-term evaluation) to determine the effectiveness of the project and the overall approach. Evaluation is different from monitoring in that it focuses on broader questions (e.g., Was the project’s approach appropriate to address the problem? Has the project improved livelihoods and well-being in the community?). In some cases, outside specialists conduct the evaluation, but often in the case of small grants, the grantees are expected to conduct the evaluation themselves. In some cases, the funder may conduct the evaluation, and some small grants do not require an evaluation or an evaluation plan at all.
Reporting refers to the responsibility of the project management team to provide periodic formal updates to the project’s funder. Reporting can be thought of as a tool for accountability; it helps the funder know that the project management team is making progress towards the project’s goals. Funders often use information in reports to relay information to their own donors.
In most cases funders have established rules and schedules for reporting; some funders require reports on a quarterly basis (every three months), whereas others might require reports only once or twice a year. In most cases when developing your proposal, you will not need to come up with your own reporting schedule. You will just need to follow the rules of your funder and incorporate their reporting requirements into your project workplan.
Learning refers to the steps the project management team will take to ensure that the lessons from the project, both good and bad, are used to change standard operating procedures, decision making processes, and the behavior of individuals, communities, and organizations/agencies for the better. Learning is a very important component of good proposals that is often overlooked in the design stage. Learning is particularly important for many small grants funders because they are often looking for promising pilot projects.1A pilot project is a demonstration or trial project designed to show the benefits of a particular approach. Funders like pilot projects because once a model is demonstrated to be successful and the benefits become clear, then other stakeholders can scale up the pilot project with their own resources.
Learning is also important so that other project teams can learn about the successes (and failures) and innovations brought about by your project. They can then incorporate those lessons into their own projects and policies. In order for this to happen, however, there has to be an effective mechanism for communicating information about the successes (and failures) of the project.
Effective MERL is a key component for bringing about lasting change and also for developing a successful project proposal. It will help your organization, your target beneficiaries, and your funder to make better decisions before, during, and after project implementation. As noted above, individual funders determine their evaluation and reporting requirements and procedures. The best advice is to make sure you are familiar with the established procedures of the particular funder you are approaching and to indicate in your proposal that you will follow these procedures. In the next section, we provide additional guidance on how to incorporate effective monitoring and learning mechanisms into your proposal.
7b. Monitoring and learning for success
As noted in the previous section, funders will pay close attention to how you have incorporated MERL into your proposal. This section provides some guidance on developing the monitoring and learning elements of your proposal. Some questions from real small grants project proposal templates include:
- Is the monitoring and evaluation plan feasible/realistic?
- Who is responsible for monitoring, evaluation, and learning for this project?
- Describe the monitoring, evaluation, and learning methods and approaches that you will apply to your project, including specific plans for data collection. This should include how data will be disaggregated.2“Disaggregate” means to separate; “disaggregated data” refers to data that has been broken down into categories to provide additional details. For example, a workshop’s participants might be disaggregated into male and female participants.
Monitoring. In most small grants applications, the monitoring framework is included as part of the logical framework (see Chapter 6). In addition, there may be a question(s) that asks you to write out your monitoring plan. A good starting point for developing your monitoring plan is your logical framework, because your monitoring plan should be clearly linked to the activities you are planning to implement. This will also help you decide what are the most sensible things to measure in your monitoring activities. Remember that the monitoring framework should be designed to provide information effectively on how the project is progressing while the project is being implemented.
Below is a sample logical framework table (often referred to as a “matrix”). This matrix includes space for baseline, target, indicator, and data source information for each project activity. The matrix included here combines the logical framework (see Chapter 6) and the monitoring framework, which is a common format for small grants applications. These matrix variables are further described below with examples from our imaginary taro project.
|Output||Activity||Baseline||Target||Indicator||Data Source/Means of Verification|
|1.1 Taro farmers gain skills in climate resilient cultivation techniques||5% of farmers familiar with climate resilient cultivation techniques||75% of farmers, including 75% of women farmers, familiar with climate resilient cultivation techniques||Survey questionnaire results||Surveys conducted before and after project activities|
|1.1.1 Develop and distribute guidebook in local language on climate-resilient taro cultivation techniques||No guidebook exists||One guidebook developed and 500 copies distributed||Guidebook; number of copies distributed||Existence of guidebook; project distribution records|
|1.1.2 Conduct workshops for farmers on climate-resilient taro cultivation techniques||No farmers trained||100 farmers, including 70% female farmers, trained on climate resilient techniques||Number of farmers trained||Gender-disaggregated sign-in sheets|
|1.1.3 Demonstration taro plots established||0 demonstration plots||5 demonstration plots||Demonstration plots||Site visits and photographic documentation|
Baseline. The baseline describes the starting condition of the things that you are going to measure. It describes what things were like before the project and provides a point of reference to determine the degree to which your project is successful in achieving its activities, outputs, outcomes, and objectives. The baseline should be related to the target (see below) and the design of the specific activity.
To formulate a baseline, identify a variable relevant to the change you want to bring about with your activity. Examples of baselines might include “no climate change guidelines incorporated into Marine Protected Area (MAP) management plan” or “10% of smallholder taro farmers aware of climate-resilient agriculture techniques”. These are conditions that are measurable and that you intend to improve.
The example provided in the matrix above shows several different baselines. As in other elements of your proposal, there should be a clear evidence base for the baseline. In other words, you should have a source for the information you use to establish your baseline.
Target. The target should likewise be geared to the specific activity and output and should be relevant to the baseline. The target describes how much of the good or service specified by the activity you will provide by the end of the project. In the case of activities, it describes how many times or how much your project will do the activity. In the case of outputs, your target will describe how much or how many of the outputs you are going to produce.
If the baseline tells you where you came from, the target should tell you where you are going. For example, output targets may include “MPA guidelines for assessing vulnerability and no-take periods incorporate climate change projections” or “75% of smallholder taro farmers aware of climate-smart agriculture techniques”. Activity targets to support these outputs may include “four MPA steering committee workshops conducted” and “five training courses for smallholder taro farmers conducted”. Make sure that your targets follow clearly from your activities and outputs. You may have more than one target for some activities and outputs.
Indicators. Indicators are how you know a change is happening as a result of something in the project (activities, outputs, outcomes). In the context of a monitoring framework, indicators describe what is going to be measured. There are different types of indicators, but many small grants programs focus primarily on activity and output indicators. Activity and output indicators demonstrate the project’s progress in providing specific goods and services through the project’s activities. A commonly used acronym to describe the characteristics of good project indicators is “SMART”. This means that indicators should be:
- Specific. The indicator focuses specifically on the activity/outcome in question. Each activity/outcome should have a different indicator; sometimes there will be more than one.
- Measurable. The indicator can be measured in a meaningful and reliable way. Indicators can be qualitative or quantitative, but qualitative indicators should be defined.3Quantitative indicators are generally based on numbers or clearly defined values and are used to answer the questions what, how many, and when. Qualitative indicators are used for things that are difficult to attach a number value to and often consist of stories and descriptions. Qualitative indicators answer the questions why and how. For example, “successful” is not a meaningful indicator unless the term is defined within the context of the project.
- Attainable. The indicator is achievable to the degree that is specified. The data to measure the indicator should also be available or obtainable with a reasonable amount of effort and expense.
- Relevant. The indicator should be a valid measure of the activity/output/outcome.
- Time-Bound. The indicator should be tied to a set timeframe.
Remember that the data required to measure your chosen indicator should be available or reasonably obtainable. If there are security or safety considerations that could impede measuring the achievement of your indicator, or if the indicator deals with sensitive information that sources might not be willing to provide, you might consider selecting a different indicator.
Data source/Means of verification. The data source, sometimes called the means of verification (MoV), describes “how you know” the indicator. The data source/MoV refers to the methodology, tool, or instrument you will use to gather the data for your indicator. The data source should be reliable and specific to the indicator. Data sources may include:
- Key informant interviews
- Site visits
- Pre- and post-workshop assessments
- Project monitoring documents
- Sign-in sheets
Make sure that your proposal includes the costs of monitoring activities and, if required, evaluation. Also make sure that you specify in your project team description which team member will be responsible for monitoring. This is critically important: if you do not have a dedicated and qualified team member that is to be responsible for monitoring activities, the project will be less attractive to funders.4Note that you do not necessarily have to have a full-time team member dedicated to monitoring and reporting, but you should ensure that it is included in a team member’s scope of work.
As a simplified example of a monitoring framework, if your output is “Community members trained and aware of climate change impacts on reefs and nearshore fisheries resources”, you might use a monitoring framework with the following characteristics:
Baseline: 10% of community residents aware of climate change impacts on reefs
Target: 50% of community residents, including 50% of women, aware of climate change impacts on reefs
Indicator: Community attendance in training workshop
Means of verification: a) sign-in sheets; b) pre- vs. post-workshop assessment
Note that all elements of the monitoring framework for this output adhere to the SMART indicators mentioned above. In this example, the baseline would have been measured ahead of time during the project planning stage, and we may assume that the low level of community awareness was part of the rationale for designing this particular activity in the first place.
Learning. As noted in the first section of this chapter, learning is an important part of successful proposals and projects.5For example, this guidebook is an example of learning from previous projects supported by USAID and other development partners. In some cases, the funder’s application template will specifically ask you to describe the learning elements of your project, but in other cases there may be no explicit mention of learning in the application template. This does not mean that learning is not important to the funders, however. The best way to address either of these situations is to make sure that learning is fully incorporated into your project. You may design activities and outputs that focus specifically on learning and knowledge management. Ways to “learn” and share project lessons may include:
- Publishing case studies and success stories
- Hosting roundtable sessions or workshops to present and discuss experiences
- Using of social media to publicize project activities
- Including relevant information on the organization’s website
- Posting videos or publishing newsletters
- Presenting at conferences
As with monitoring and evaluation, you should make sure that learning activities are included in the budget. When you consider learning, think about the following questions:
- How is your organization going to learn? What new skills, abilities, and competencies is your organization going to acquire?
- How will your project improve the institutional and human capacities of relevant government agencies? For example: “This project will improve the capability of the Department of Agriculture to incorporate climate change vulnerability information into normal processes of sectoral planning and budgeting.”
- How is the community going to benefit in the long term from your project?
- Is your project scalable and replicable? How are others going to learn from your project experience so that they can repeat what you have done or avoid your mistakes, and how is the government going to be able to implement the successful innovations developed by your project on a larger scale?
- Are your outputs sustainable? How will you ensure that any booklets, publications, curriculum materials, or other materials that you produce continue to be used after your project is completed?
A good MERL framework will help you to keep your project on track and will enable you to effectively capture the lessons learned—both positive and negative—from your project. A thoughtful and well-planned MERL framework is also a key element in presenting your project to funders. Virtually all funders will require you to develop a MERL framework as part of your proposal, and there are normally evaluation points added or deducted based on the quality of your MERL framework. There are many good guidebooks and references for all aspects of monitoring, evaluation, reporting, and learning. You will find links to some of these in the appendix.