Together hard data and powerful human interest stories can change the way we communicate aid and rebuild trust in the aid sector.
Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and Communications are the quintessential odd couple.
They are often quite distant from one another in development projects. But, of course, they can – and should – be a match made in heaven. M&E creates data, which gives a wider perspective for stories and can tell us categorically what has been achieved, while storytelling can magically bring data and projects to life.
Divide between M&E and Communications
So why, when there is potentially such chemistry, does the divide exist? Well, M&E efforts collect data that allow people who have some familiarity with the project to assess progress. It can be dry and technical and varies from project to project. But getting data and the associated narrative information is often done under significant time pressure, with little consideration for the other benefits the fantastic information and learning that each project generates might have. Don’t get me wrong, this is usually not due to M&E teams not realising these benefits, it just doesn’t ‘work that way’ in the thick of it.
On the other hand, communications teams unearth and craft stories which for various reasons – and with all good intentions – can end up being very different from the day-to-day reality of projects. They are simplified, polished or highlight a particular part of a much bigger project, and when presented to wider audiences bear little resemblance to the often raw, real-time reporting done by M&E.
M&E teams and other programme staff often don’t recognise the stories being put out about their projects, while communications people continue to find projects and data a little too complex and inscrutable.
Bringing M&E and Communications together
As development NGOs come under increased scrutiny from the public, the media and donors on how they spend funding, and with wider moves towards open data and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), some organisations are sensing an opportunity (even a necessity) to bring M&E and Communications closer together.
Many NGOs are making moves towards providing their own dashboards to share data, for example.
Combine storytelling and data
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with UK development agency Christian Aid as it attempts to take things a step further, with a creative new approach to communicating some of its key donor-funded programmes.
Through the DataStories initiative, Christian Aid is seeking to combine authentic and compelling personal stories from communities, captured in words, photographs and film, with hard data, evidence and numbers which show the actual change projects are having within people’s lives. M&E and comms teams have been working closely together on the project.
‘The reality of our programmes is sometimes very complex. With DataStories, we want to improve the general awareness of what we are doing and the complexity of our realities,’ says Sam Moody, Christian Aid’s digital transformation manager. ‘The more accessible data we share, the more people will see what really works and what doesn’t, the changes in people’s lives and what we are learning.’
Being really open about what happens in projects and putting this into accessible numbers and stories allows people to look deeper into the effectiveness of projects, and the changes in people’s lives development organisations are or are not bringing about. This is a very big leap for many agencies.
But at Christian Aid, communications colleagues are also committed to the openness of the approach. Chris McWilliams, programme communications lead, adds: ‘People will be able to see the flaws and challenges in our projects, but we believe showing things the way they really are is critical.’
Build reputation for transparency and increase trust
There will come a time in the near future – perhaps we are already there – where people will tire of being spoon-fed and want to explore information about development projects and judge for themselves what they find worthwhile and effective. So why not give the aid supporters and sceptics of the future some credit to be able to deal with different types of information and make up their own minds?
Just how far NGOs are prepared to open things up remains to be seen, but this might be a chance to build a reputation for transparency and increase trust among donors, supporters and the wider public that our sector cannot afford to miss.