Storytelling project improves monitoring and evaluation

Projects need something besides a crystal ball to evaluate their work. Photo by islandguy, via Flickr Creative Commons

The question is simple: “Please tell a story about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community.” That question has elicited over 21,000 stories from people in Kenya and Uganda. The stories are part of the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project.

The parent organization, GlobalGiving, matches donors with causes. What sets the organization apart is its efforts to provide progress updates so those contributing dollars can see what impact the donations have had and those carrying out the projects can see if they have been effective.

The story approach allows community members to participate in evaluating projects. Using SenseMaker™ software, GlobalGiving plans to turn the qualitative data embedded in the stories into quantitative reports. Anyone who has worked with or for non-profits is aware how critical this is. In the competition for funds, qualitative data are often dubbed “feel-good” and given little or no credence. So anything that can assess qualitative evaluations in a way that gives them a more “scientific” patina will help attract new or ongoing funding. It will also help those involved to better assess their work.

The stories on the wite are an interesting mixture. One tells of a diplomatic village chief’s skill persuading a scrappy couple to reconcile. Another is the story of a young man from a poor family who became a doctor, thanks to a donor’s paying his school fees. A third tells of a group of farmers who developed a co-operative and opened a market for their produce.

Taken individually, the stories are too brief and anecdotal to provide useful feedback. Using the data GlobalGiving will obtain with the help of the software, the stories will help them to better evaluate the effectiveness of international development projects. Using what they learn, they will develop a community feedback toolkit that can be used by any organization. (Their story gathering tool is already online.)

The reality of community development is much like the sign Einstein is purported to have hung in his Princeton University office:

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

At the same time, effective evaluation of a project’s impact is the only way to assure donors and participants their money and time have been well spent. This will be an interesting initiative to watch over the coming years.

N.B. For an excellent overview of the storytelling project, read Amplifying Local Voices.

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