Six things I learnt at the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Community of Practice Launch

Grace Nicholas

27 Jan, 2020

The end of 2019 was also a new beginning for monitoring and evaluation practitioners, with the launch of ACFID’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Community of Practice (MEL COP).

On December 3, 43 of us from NGO, consulting and academic backgrounds joined the MEL COP launch and learning event in Melbourne and online, excited to be sharing challenges and ideas.

We heard from an expert panel drawn from small, medium and large NGOs - Jayne Pilkinton (Oxfam), Tracy McDiarmid (IWDA) and Kylie Shae (Motivation Australia), hosted by Linda Kelly (La Trobe University). Their discussion on the strategic MEL "Circle of Life" drew out perspectives on theory and approach and offered concrete examples of practice and learning. The MEL circle of life refers to the cycle of action, learning, adaptation, action that is supported by successful monitoring and evaluation.

Here are my six highlights from the discussion.

1. Local partners are key

Putting partners’ interests first is practical as well as ethical. Motivation Australia focuses on bringing MEL to life - by developing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) frameworks with local partners to identify their priorities for data collection. This places local partners’ needs first and ensures that data collection processes are useful to all. It means that partners are collecting data that they value and can easily use, at the same time as providing required information for donors and other stakeholders.


2. MEL can be the glue

When funding is fragmented, only available in small amounts, MEL can hold a program together. Coordinated M&E data, and learning from individual projects, enables Motivation Australia to pick up different pieces of funding as they become available, while continuing to work towards their overall strategy. They are able to see how individual projects contribute to the overall vision, and identify gaps outstanding for future funding, thanks to their M&E frameworks and strong data.

3. Organisational strategy can be a framework to drive learning and accountability

By using their strategic reviews and learning to identify collaborative research that cuts across program areas, Oxfam can find new insights into key issues, as well as report back against strategy. By linking project M&E with broader thematic learning initiatives, Oxfam has been able to generate and learn from evidence related to women’s economic empowerment in ways that are relevant at project, thematic and strategic levels.).


4. MEL evidence smooths difficult decisions

IWDA wanted to assess the relevance of its strategy in a context of rapid growth from a small to medium-sized organisation. Without data and, in particular, without inclusive analysis, this could have been a divisive process for the organisation. Instead, clear evidence ensured objectivity and transparency in decision-making and communication.


5. MEL can be perceived as a burden, but proves its worth

M&E processes can seem imposed, extractive and time-consuming. But MEL proves its worth when organisations can focus on the purpose, bring creativity to the process, and collect only what is needed. Motivation Australia has largely abandoned narrative reporting in favour of documented conversations; and IWDA encourages partners to consider different ways to analyse data that are empowering, such as participatory workshops to jointly identify findings.


6. The struggle to find the right evidence continues

There are challenges to finding the right information for different audiences, such as programs teams and Boards, raising the question: who we are collecting information for and why? And other tensions remain: numbers offer limited insight into effective movement building, while qualitative information alone can’t tell the story of scale and reach.

My favourite quote of the day came from Tracy, who captured the panel’s shared views on the importance of a culture of inquiry for NGOs, when she said:

“The output itself is not as important as the journey to get there, where everyone co-learns and owns the analysis and application of learning. The final report is the reminder, not the outcome; we learn from the participation."


Our launch at the end of the calendar year was fittingly ‘M&E’: taking a moment at the end of our hard work to pause, reflect, take stock and plan. In this new year, the MEL COP will reconvene to take up participants’ recommendations for the group’s focus and activities.

In the meantime, you can read the full event report and stay engaged by joining the MEL COP - email Raewyn Lans at ACFID.

  • Grace Nicholas
    Grace Nicholas

    Grace Nicholas is an independent consultant offering services in project design, monitoring, evaluation, learning and impact, with a focus on advancing women’s rights and gender equality. She has worked extensively with NGOs including ActionAid, CARE, the Fred Hollows Foundation and ChildFund, in Australia and globally. For further information, please see Grace’s profile on LinkedIn.


1 others found this useful.


  • Kate Angus

    03 Feb, 2020

    Really good to see this Community getting going. There is definitely a need and appetite within the sector for a community that can network, share and learn from each other and others outside the ACFID membership. I have been hearing an interest in working together on strategic issues to do with how we learn about and demonstrate impact on the big and sticky issues for development and humanitarian practice. Thanks to the ACFID members, the COP Co-Chairs and Grace for starting this process. I encourage anyone who wants to join the Community of Practice to be part of this year's activities to contact ACFID ([email protected]).
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