Capturing Organizational Successes with MEL: Lessons from El Salvador

Nov 2, 2023
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El Salvador
Two canoes of Salvadorans glide across the water in La Libertad, El Salvador.

In the heart of El Salvador, a remarkable force of local organizations is working to enact positive change and drive progress within their communities. USAID/El Salvador (USAID/ES) and the Partnerships Incubator worked with 12 organizations in El Salvador to co-create technical service (TA) packages for each of them. These organizations, representing a spectrum of focus areas, years of operation, funding levels, and technical expertise, are a testament to the robust landscape of community-driven initiatives that exist across the country. Amidst a mosaic of dedicated efforts, a common truth emerges: transparency of impact builds trust, tells the story, and inspires investments for donors, beneficiaries, and staff.

On all sides of the development equation, trust must be a constant variable. A tried and true way to establish trust and transparency is through identifying, monitoring, and reporting impact. “Document everything so that you can show what you're doing and convince others to trust you and to be a part of it,” says Andrea Schildknecht Mendez, Deputy Chief of Party for Fundación Gloria Kriete, a local organization supporting the most vulnerable Salvadorans through education and training programs. 

Whether seeking funding through USAID or other donors, capturing and documenting your organization’s performance, progress, internal systems, and future plans is critical to a successful collaborative relationship. 

“I think it's a really rich relationship [with USAID] where we now learn from each other instead of just receiving help. Once you develop that relationship where they see what you see…you can start giving back to help the organization that's actually given so much support that you become equals. And it's a fun spot to be.”

What Is MEL?

Monitoring, evaluation, and learning, or MEL, also is recognized by a few other names—monitoring and evaluation (M&E) or monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning (MEAL). Irrespective of what title an organization gives their MEL program, assessing impact is paramount for successful project implementation. This practice ensures an organization reaches its desired results by providing clear data about progress to guide decision-making, learning, and improvements.

Organizations will find that most USAID contracts and awards require an in-depth MEL plan before an activity can begin. Establishing a comprehensive plan for accountability and implementation provides transparency to the Agency, its stakeholders, and your organization. 

A robust MEL framework is an essential building block of an effective project, ensuring that to reach project outcomes, there are specific indicators to measure success and grow from failures.

Discover Evidence of Organizational Impact

Once a USAID partner receives an award or contract, it’s time to get to work and prove organizational effectiveness. But what are the key ways to measure impact on a development project? Beyond the who, what, where, when, and why is the how of an organization’s story and mission. Through data collection and analysis, project teams can identify how a project works and what needs improvements. Documenting data and its meaning informs stakeholders what decision-making processes are happening and how resources, such as time, money, and staff, are optimized. Through this transparency, organizations can tell a vivid story of how their work impacts communities. This evidence not only can be used to secure future funding but can also be used as lessons learned to help influence policies and development methodologies for future programs, whether their own or other similar organizations. 

One of the challenges of implementing MEL on a project is identifying indicators for the activity’s more abstract impacts. For example, a project can quantify the households that now have access to clean water, the girls who have completed their secondary education, or the number of vaccines distributed to older adults in a rural community, but the abstract impact assessment, such as happiness or conflict mitigation, is where the challenge lies. 

“The assistance we received in M&E has been really helpful—rethinking how to measure impact, including the intangible things,” says Claudia Blanco, Executive Director of FUNDASAL, another local organization transforming low-income Salvadoran communities by improving their housing and living conditions. “This is important to what we do.”

While field research and data collection capture quantifiable impact, qualitative research, such as focus groups, surveys, case studies, and regular beneficiary interviews, can help organizations measure impact anecdotally. As a standard practice, this also builds trust with the community members receiving support to ensure their perceptions of the project activity are considered.

Sustaining Localization through MEL

As USAID continues to advance localization and empower local organizations, communities, and institutions, MEL becomes particularly vital in elevating local voices. 

“I think local organizations, we have the opportunity to connect a lot with the needs in the field,” says Karla Segovia, Executive Director of FUSAL, a Salvadoran organization dedicated to providing social programs focused on health, education, and community building. “And because of that, we are also responsible to translate what's going on in our countries for different audiences, but particularly for donors. That's why I think we need to be mindful about how we tell the stories and how important it is to invest in communication so that we can not only share better what the challenges are in the field but also how we are changing lives once we have the opportunity to work with partners, such as donors.”

Localization requires tailoring projects and actions to specific cultural contexts of the implementing country. MEL facilitates putting local actors in the driver’s seat by strengthening their capabilities to measure implementation activities independently. This structure creates a sense of ownership for local organizations, enabling them to choose their indicators and measurement methods. When local organizations establish their MEL programs, USAID and other donors can better understand what is truly important to local communities and what long-term, sustainable success looks like. 

How to Implement a MEL Plan?

Within the first 90 days of a new activity, organizations must present a thorough MEL plan to USAID. As a best practice, this should be carried out regardless of the donor or donor agency. Thankfully, implementing a MEL plan does not need to be a complex process. With the help of the MEL Plan Template from USAID’s Learning Lab, organizations can standardize and streamline their process.

“The important thing is, the policies and processes we have developed will remain and will help us create programs and give better answers, using the tools for monitoring,” says Padilla. “The formats, forms, and tools will help us continue working and be transparent to the team. It won't be with just one person but with the team. It will be an organizational policy.”

The core elements of a strong MEL plan include defining clear objectives and indicators. These guide organizations through data collection and outcome measurements. Whether using a simple spreadsheet or a more robust system—such as the MEL template above or a digital tool—establish a timeframe for regular data collection, such as monthly or quarterly. As data is populated, a picture will form for organizations, donors, and beneficiaries to help them make informed decisions about what to iterate or improve.

For organizations seeking funding to scale growth and impact, it is critical to understand the importance of a MEL plan. Each of these local organizations advises investing in developing an impact assessment plan to establish a baseline of trust with your donors and community. Whether local or international, a startup or an established corporation, all organizations benefit from a strong MEL plan.

Learn how to measure your organization’s impact by completing USAID’s MEL Training Module. Find additional support by taking the Pre-Engagement Assessment and visiting the Resource Library to strengthen your capacities and understand USAID’s partnership expectations. 

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