Why data collection and communications need to go together

February through April is a high-stress time for me. It’s annual report writing season and, at times, I’m working on up to four annual reports at once. The stress is normally driven by one problem - information, or more accurately, the lack-there-of. I’ve found that while organizations understand that data collection, or monitoring and evaluation (M&E), is an important tool for tracking progress, it often gets relegated as a program/project system or tool that is needed to check a donor compliance box and, in turn, is underinvested in and doesn’t adequately capture an organization’s overall impact. An annual report – or other communications tools – is something that could take weeks to put together, but instead oftentimes ends up taking months of research and digging for information, which is a frustrating process that could be streamlined by strengthening an organization’s M&E systems.

From a communications perspective, data is critical. Without it - stories, quotes, photos, metrics - it’s hard to capture and communicate an organization’s achievements, failures, insights, and purpose. It’s hard to tell a convincing story if you’re missing rich and interesting details. It’s also hard to convince someone about something if you don’t have evidence to make your case. This is why M&E matters for your organization - M&E affects an organizations ability to fundraise, influence policies, develop new partnerships, and change behaviors. If you have the information that shows how you’re bringing about change, you have a much more convincing set of messages than one that talks in theory.

Avoid the information scramble – Getting Communications and Data Collection to work together

Communications units aren’t innocent in the information deficit dilemma. In fact, communications should play a major role in helping to shape, design, and evaluate an organization’s M&E system. This doesn’t often happen as the two are often considered distinct and separate functions of an organization. However, from a communications standpoint, you should ask yourself the following:

  • What information do we need to most effectively communicate our key messages?
  • What should that information look like (e.g. stories, quotes, metrics, photos, etc.)?
  • How often do we need to communicate about this information?
  • What systems do we need in order to organize this information internally?

Information that is key to an organization’s messaging needs to be included in its M&E systems and needs to be accessible - and understood by - a communicator.

When it's done right...

Take the example of Lion Guardians. Lion Guardians’ Communications Manager is also deeply involved with its M&E system. She understands the different components, the data that they’re collecting and why, and how it all fits together. She also ensures that certain pieces of information, such as stories and quotes, are included as part of the data collection process. In turn, Lion Guardians’ communications are powerful and convincing – and have helped the organization double its donor base and increase its annual expenditure significantly – because their messages and products are grounded by data that shows their impact and doesn’t just talk about it. In addition, Lion Guardians turns out their annual report and other communications products, such as quarterly newsletters, in a timely and organized fashion because the data is already at their fingertips.

Here are some other examples where M&E and communications come together to tell a very powerful story:

  • Integrated Rural Development and Conservation of Nature’s website showcases impact metrics and stories, which illustrate the success of their model and approach. Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust takes a similar approach, highlighting their impact through figures and photos on their website’s homepage.
  • The Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations (NACSO) produces lengthy and data-heavy reports on the state of conservancies in Namibia. They also package this information in different ways to ensure the information is accessible to a broader audience (“State of Community Conservation in Namibia 2014/15” summary poster).

So the next time your organization sits down to talk abut M&E, make sure communications is considered and included in that discussion.

*This post is by Jessie Davie, Head of Communications at Maliasili Initiatives