Using stories to show change
When it comes to evaluating a project, the people who dreamed it into being are the ones who know it most intimately. In the non-profit world, that can mean people with limited or no experience in measuring outcomes are asked to reduce their work to something that can be slotted into a form. That’s a bit like describing a butterfly by naming its color and antennae.
What those at the grassroots level can do best, better than anyone coming in as an outside expert, is tell the project’s stories. They know the three women who dreamed of opening a bakery. They helped them with start-up loans and training. They were amazed when one of those women learned to read and write so she could handle the fledgling company’s paperwork. Literacy was not being funded and won’t be measured, but the story of that unanticipated outcome may end up being the most compelling reason for the micro-lending project to continue.
Conveying the significance of a project’s stories has always been a challenge. Fortunately, there is a tool: Most Significant Change, a technique that gives stories the credibility that allows them to stand alongside other evaluation tools.
The technique grew out of a problem. Back in 1996 Rick Davies was working on a micro-credit project in Bangladesh, and Jess Dart was working on a family systems project in India. The projects had to be evaluated, but they involved multiple community and individual approaches that had no indicators in common.
Anyone who has worked in the non-profit world understands the dilemma. Funders and project sponsors need data. They need graphs and charts. They need solid evidence their money and attention are making a difference.
What people at the community level need is an evaluation that takes more into account than statistics. They know the hopes with which they began. They see the roadblocks that sent them in a new direction. They understand when an outcome may seem modest to an outsider but represents a giant step in the community. Reducing everything to easily measured outcomes can miss the most important impacts of the project.
Faced with the challenge of evaluating complex projects, Dart and Davies came up with separate methodologies. By Jess’s admission, Rick’s was better. Most Significant Change was born.
Their initial trial was a success. Jess made it the focus of her PhD. The two of them went on to develop a guide, which can be downloaded free. Now the methodology is used around the world, not as a stand-alone approach but as a powerful addition.
And it is all based on stories.
To explore Most Significant Change:
- Jess Dart’s 2007 presentation
- United Nations Web site on MSC
- Rick Davies Web site on MSC
- Digital story examples from Laidlaw Foundation
- An illustration of how MSC is used is this report, Stories of Significance: Redefining Change , which is an evaluation of community based interventions for Indian women and HIV/AIDS.
- Shawn Callahan’s MSC primer