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From compliance to love with MEL: Supporting busy advocacy organisations to embrace monitoring, evaluation and learning

Over the course of our work with advocacy organisations, we’ve identified three insights about how to cross the divide from MEL being about compliance and a chore to being valued as a way to improve and strengthen advocacy work.

Over the past year, Itad has provided tailored capacity-building support in monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) to six advocacy organisations which focus on the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria replenishment. At the start of the project, we developed a bespoke framework for advocacy grantees to self-assess MEL capacities in their organisations.

Advocacy initiatives are inherently complex and unpredictable – strategies need to pivot quickly to respond to political opportunities and emerging changes which are often beyond the control of the organisation. Advocacy actors are constantly thinking about how they are progressing, whether tactics are getting the desired responses, and how to adapt strategy and tactics given contextual changes. This rapid-fire learning is usually done while in the ‘flow’ of a campaign, with advocates using their extensive experience and professional intuition, and exchanging knowledge with allies and partners verbally to adapt plans quickly.

MEL can reinforce this learning by structuring moments to step back and think critically and strategically, but conventional MEL approaches are often too slow, resource-intensive or bureaucratic to enhance advocacy strategies in real-time. Most of our partners have experienced this ‘heavy’ MEL as part of their reporting to their funders – important, but a million miles from their dynamic day-to-day work, and often seen as a necessary chore.

Over the course of our work, we’ve identified three insights about how to cross the divide from MEL being about compliance and a chore to being valued as a way to improve and strengthen advocacy work:

  1. Making MEL (really and truly) useful

To be effective, MEL approaches need to match the pace of rapid-fire learning in the ‘flow’. They need to fit the resources and time that the organisation has available, and be designed as an integral part of advocacy strategies to create moments of helpful, critical reflection. To position this, we developed an approach we called ‘Adaptive MEL for Advocacy’, which we explain in a new learning paper which pulls together our reflections on how the framework has played out in practice. The approach gave us a framework to help partners see MEL in a more integrated way, as well as a way of mapping what MEL the organisations were already doing.

The mapping process helped us to get insights into the dynamics and cadences of how advocacy organisations work, and assess their understanding, appetite and resources for MEL. It also helped to identify important information-sharing and reflection practices used by our partners that – while not formally MEL – offered good entry points for more structured approaches.

Our partners reflected back to us that they appreciated the time we took to understand how they work and our willingness to tailor our approach to their needs, rather than imposing a ‘blueprint’ solution. They also gained an appreciation of MEL as something that touches the heart of their work – and goes much further than reporting. In a nice ‘aha’ moment, one of our partners said she could now see that the kind of MEL we’re promoting involves a mindset change from seeing MEL as compliance to loving it because it’s useful and helps you to do better work.

  1. Does it all come down to culture?

This insight flowed from honouring the approach of meeting partners where they are and seeing MEL as a part of their organisational journey, rather than a set of rigid best practices. We avoided introducing too many tools and frameworks, mainly because responding to the different dynamics in each organisation has brought home to us that culture is probably the central influencing driver of MEL. When culture is supportive, with leadership genuinely modelling learning, MEL processes and tools have a lot more traction and add value fairly quickly. When a supportive culture is not in place, even the most well-designed and relevant processes and tools are either not used, or not used optimally. This seems to hold true regardless of the size of the organisation – openness to change and to exploring MEL as part of strategic development seem to be key to seeding and spreading MEL practices.

  1. Discovering ‘right-sized’ MEL together

Focusing on building relationships, establishing trust and taking a genuinely collaborative approach to experiment and try out what might work is as (or more) important than technical inputs. People know their own organisation better than we do, so we have suggested, demonstrated, practised and tested different things together, all the while accompanying our partners to tailor MEL to fit their routines and dynamics. This approach, while potentially slower upfront, has helped seed that shift in mindset and enabled us to support incremental, but well-rooted, change, alongside introducing MEL tools and frameworks. Together with a funder who is prepared to provide the support needed to embed change, hopefully, we are seeing important steps of moving from compliance to – if not a full-blown passion for MEL – then certainly an appreciation and application of MEL that brings benefits and improvements to advocacy organisations.

We would love to hear from other MEL practitioners and advocates about your experiences with MEL for advocacy work and know if our insights resonate with you. We also invite you to read our full Learning Brief –  Learning from Mapping MEL capacity from advocacy.