12 habits of successful change-makers: evaluating what matters and learning from it

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.

Habit #11: Don’t let evaluation smother your campaigning instincts

The words ‘monitoring and evaluation’ are enough to send many campaigners running for hills. Not because they fear scrutiny, or because they don’t want to understand the difference their efforts are making, but because evaluation processes so often cause campaigns to fail before they have barely begun.

Monitoring, evaluation & learning (MEL) approaches are usually based on the predictable – outputs that are easily counted or impacts that can be calculated in financial terms. Any campaigner will tell you that change is usually complex and unpredictable. It’s often impossible to say which activity will be the one that tips the scales in your favour, and it can be dependent on the efforts of many actors. One contributor to our Social Change Project said of campaigners: ‘We sow seeds. We don’t deliver outcomes’, and I agree with that wholeheartedly.

As a chief executive, it’s important to understand that, while traditional evaluation might fit neatly into your wider organisational systems, insisting on it risks damaging your campaigns. Ultimately, you could be denying the people you work for the change they need.

A linear, pre-determined approach to evaluation can actively work against you by forcing campaigners to plan for shorter-term, easily measurable activity. If you’ve mastered habit #1 (Mission First) this will already be anathema to you. Our response to complexity should not be to focus on the ‘easier’ activities. It should be to develop better approaches to MEL that reflect this complexity, alongside a culture that embraces reflection and learning.

This is starting to happen. Some service providers are thinking about their value in radically different ways, as residing in relationships, for example. Leading-edge organisations acknowledge that it may not even be possible to know upfront where real value will be created, and we are seeing wholly new approaches to MEL that allow participants to define value for themselves as they take part. New Philanthropy Capital recently updated its approach to Theory of Change and is now highlighting the pitfalls of applying a strictly linear version. It says ‘the main driver for evaluation should be to test ideas that are new or experimental’. Jim Coe and Rhonda Schlangen have developed a model that specifically takes into account the complexities of advocacy and campaigning.

By ensuring that you are just as focused on the ‘L’ as the ‘M’ you can create opportunities to reflect meaningfully on what’s working, what isn’t, and how you can improve – not just at the end of a campaign but at every point in between. Failures are often the most valuable chances to learn – are your campaigners allowed to admit them? We could all take some inspiration from Engineers Without Borders Canada’s regular ‘failure reports’.

Finally, meaningful evaluation of complex change (if it’s possible at all) has a cost – in time, money or both. Make sure that you are investing your resources proportionately, in a way that will pay dividends for your campaigns and, most importantly, for the people you work for.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #10, knowing our tools

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