And no-one can deny it matters - tracking outputs and progress towards higher-level results, helping management make decisions that steer projects, and of, course, accountability to our donors and other stakeholders - yes, reports do matter.
In over 20 years training people to write better, I know having an understanding of Professional Writing and following a writing process helps a great deal.
But I've Also Seen Many Humanitarian Workers - Managers Included - Don't Seem To Have A Logical Approach To Reporting.
So why is reporting still one of those responsibilities that sits like a black cloud on the horizon and then suddenly becomes urgent as we rush to put it all together to meet a deadline?
Now, I can't share everything I know in just one post.
But I can outline some of the important steps to help you be more systematic about creating your reports.
So here goes.
SET CLEAR (AND REALISTIC) OBJECTIVES
Early in the project you may only be gathering information on stakeholders' reactions and feelings, while only later will you start to see progress towards outcomes. So don't go looking for change that isn't there.
Review The History
What issues have occurred in the past, what was planned in the last reporting period? What ongoing concerns from end users or management need to be investigated?
Define The Questions
Now, if you have an M&E plan those questions will, hopefully, already exist. If not, for each thing you plan to look at, rephrase as a question / group of questions.
IDENTIFY SOURCES OF DATA AND METHODS
- Focus Group Discussion - when you want range and depth of information
- Surveys and questionnaires - when you need lots of data economically
- Observation - when you want to see how things are actually done - such as farming practices
- Documentation Review - when that information is easily available from someone else's records, such as a health post
- Interview - when there are key people whose insight matters
- Case Study - when you need to go deep into individual experiences of the project's inputs, services, outcomes and impact
MAKE A DATA COLLECTION PLAN
Then schedule the different data collection activities, bearing in mind respondents' availability, time and workloads, as well as logistical issues such as travel.
Remember it takes time to get people together for a Focus Group, important people may not always be available for interviews, and we have to respect our stakeholders' time and their other priorities.
ANALYSE THE INFORMATION
For sure, we can compare data collected with what was expected, and we may be able to conclude that we are on track, or perhaps not, but it's the 'why' that matters.
- Why are we succeeding / failing?
- Are our assumptions holding true?
- What are the perspectives of stakeholders and beneficiaries?
- What external or internal events are affecting project progress?
- Are we even on the right track?
In a results-based world, we also to report on more than just whether we are following the plan - that's just compliance. We always look at effectiveness, and progress towards the achievement of results.
In 20 years' of training humanitarian workers to develop reports that get results, I've developed my own three-step process to data analysis. (Sadly, no time to share in detail here, but will elaborate in other posts.)
This isn't about crunching numbers through excel or SPSS. It's about using our heads. The first step is familiarisation. (Or sometimes frustration!)
Understanding and getting to know the data ... and as we examine the information we start to ask ourselves questions - why does this happen? How are these facts connected?
In Step Two we organise the information - try to find common themes.
For example, the data below represents a study on children in Nepal where the initial data has been organised into a Mind Map around certain themes. (Mind Mapping is another skill we teach on many of our courses.)
In the example below, you will see how the facts connect together to tell stories. For example, how having fewer girls in school is both a cause and effect of child labour and early marriage - how early marriage contributes to high maternal mortality rates - and how limited access to safe water reduces even further the likelihood of girls attending school.
REVIEW THE OBJECTIVES AND PLAN THE REPORT
Bear the reader in mind also - what they already know, what they don't know and what information they need.
Then plan the report.
If a template exists, do what I've done and deconstruct it into a map.
DRAFT - DON'T EDIT
The next step is Drafting.
Here just follow the plan - without stopping to check spelling, grammar or think of 'the right word'.
Just turn ideas into simple, clear sentences and paragraphs.
MAKE SURE IT'S AS GOOD AS CAN BE
Check for clear objectives, good organisation, clarity, language, style and grammar / spelling.