What funders need to know about stakeholder partnerships: Authentic collaboration creates solutions for problems you don't know you have yet

Making learning and adaptation an intrinsic part of programme design leads to higher impact and more effective outcomes.

Motivational Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) in 30 seconds

  • Shared motivation and aligned goals create trust and accountability that allows programmes to learn, adapt and improve
  • Reflective learning produces results, and funders can be kept in the loop about why and how the programme is changing as new evidence and experience arises
  • Good decision-making requires the combination of rigorous data feeding into rapid feedback loop

Learning and adaptation is a staple of every successful programme… but how often does it feel like just a box-ticking exercise? No one would seriously suggest ditching monitoring and evaluation – but by simply taking the standard approach, might you miss a crucial opportunity to achieve greater impact and results?

Imagine you have everyone involved in your programme gathered in a room: accomplished, busy people, used to making high-value decisions, who have run countless initiatives in the past. What single question has the power to pull all those people together around a shared ambition – one that can align motivations and drive your programme towards meeting its goals?

Nils Riemenschneider, Kerry Selvester, Matilda Eriksson and Paul Jasper recently collaborated to review what happened when two programmes (MUVA in Mozambique and Building Resilience in Ethiopia, BRE-TA) focused their efforts on making learning and adaptation an intrinsic part of their design.

The programmes were structured so that those implementing the activities, and those directly benefiting from them were centrally involved in identifying successes, pain points and dead ends, and their feedback dovetailed into regular opportunities to adapt the programme accordingly.

The Million Dollar Question

And the process in the MUVA and BRE-TA programmes that began this crucial analysis? When each stakeholder was asked: ‘What is success to you?’

Before the programme’s goals can be determined, there must be deeply shared ownership of its underpinning values; by exploring the intrinsic motivations of every participant – why they get up and go to work in the morning – programme designers find an authentic shared goal, and harness real motivation and buy-in. Stakeholders with real stuff at stake!

Getting insight from the people on the ground is what drives your programme’s progress. But to get to the real dialogue, we have to build trust between partners: trust that change is possible, that voices are heard, and that goals are shared.

Change is gonna do you good

The theory of change is a critical roadmap for any programme, and it was in designing an accurate understanding of how change might really be achieved that the trust-building began for MUVA and BRE-TA. They invested in participatory processes for designing ToCs that included implementing organisations and individuals, building on their intrinsic motivations. It brings out challenges and steps towards addressing them in a way that makes the resulting ToC framework more credible. This produced a shared ownership of the programme objectives, and like a chiropractic movement, aligned the incentives of everyone involved.

MUVA's Theory of Change Design

When developing a vocational training programme for young women in Mozambique, the designers listened to the needs and interests of:

  • the funder (who wanted to strengthen female economic empowerment
  • the local employers (who wanted employees with vocational soft skills)
  • the target group of unemployed women (who wanted jobs they enjoyed that would pay a decent wage)

The ToC aligned all these different objectives into a focused plan to incorporate vocational and soft skills training to better equip women for their local job market, empowering them to become economic actors in the region.

A stone in your shoe doesn’t have to end the race

This starting point of aligned objectives and shared ownership sounds great, and to begin with, your programme is off and running with a spring in its step. But regular check-ups are critical to ensure you stay on track – and even more importantly, if there’s a problem, it should be addressed early and holistically.

For MUVA, the programme made a good start, but soon implementers noticed that there was a high dropout rate in the non-literate group of participants – the programme training materials had been designed for literate users.

In a reflection workshop to consider the data and possible adaptations, implementers considered their options for redesigning the programme or changing the target group. They communicated the process and outcome to the funder, sharing their insight into how the programme should best move forwards.

The trust built amongst all stakeholders enabled a coherent and honest assessment of the programme, and how it could be changed to address the challenge. Rapid feedback meant that the programme didn’t fail, but was adapted for effective delivery and stronger impact.

Synchronising data collection and analysis with a learning and adaptation cycle is crucial, so that when issues arise, they can be acted on.

MEL is the backbone of a healthy programme

“The approach in the working paper, which we sometimes call ‘Motivational MEL’, draws on knowledge of people designing and implementing programmes. They know what is working and what can be improved and how. We involve them as ‘solution finders’.” Riemenschneider et al

MEL provides information on what is working and where there’s pain, just like a functioning nervous system. The most effective programmes ensure that this crucial element isn’t siloed or relegated to a tick-box exercise.

Placing the MEL process within an institutional structure creates great accountability for donors, and allows everyone to trace how evidence feeds into decision-making and leads to adaptation.

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