Reflections from our learning journey
By Noura Selim, Executive Director at Sawiris Foundation
19 years as one of the first family foundations in Egypt, the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, working actively and tirelessly to serve the most marginalized communities in Egypt through education, economic empowerment and social empowerment.
What have we achieved in these 19 years?
Can we rigorously and unequivocally define and quantify our achievements, beyond the major figures of how many beneficiaries we have reached through our programs and how much money we have spent?
Can we clearly define our impact?
Do we know if our programs have been sustainable?
Do we know if our economic empowerment programs led to other positive effects on children’s education or family health or other social metrics?
Did we really get “the biggest (developmental) bang for our buck”?
These are the questions we found ourselves asking as we reflected on our past, and as we worked to plan for our future. Tough questions, but ones that as development practitioners, we must not shy away from answering, particularly if we want to ensure more effective decision-making that leads to more effective programming and ultimately achieves our mission of a better life for the most marginalized.
What we have come to know as we embarked on our journey to ensure that as a grantmaker we had the right tools and processes to measure and report our impact, is that many of the members of the development eco-system, invest far too little in asking and answering these kind of questions. In the Arab world and in Egypt, where charity and giving is deeply rooted in the culture, but where “professional philanthropic giving” is still relatively nascent, this is even more pronounced. This is not because development practitioners do not want to measure their impact – for sure, the intention and desire is there – but it is mainly driven by resistance to putting in the resources (which can be significant time and money) to do so, and also driven by the belief that these programs are designed to do good so in a way they must be doing good, so why do we need to measure in such a way? Not only that, but there is scarcity in the development market, at least in the Arab world, of the talents needed to conduct rigorous assessments of development programs.
In 2019, we set out to establish a gold standard “Learning & Strategy” unit, mandated with monitoring and evaluation of our core programs. Even the name of the unit was heavily debated…why not just call it what it is: “Monitoring & Evaluation” unit? It was important that our unit was “Learning & Strategy” as we wanted to reflect the real goal behind this department, which was for us as a grant-maker to learn with our grantees, and for that learning to inform our strategy. Monitoring and Evaluation were processes that we would conduct to reach our goals, but were not within themselves the goal. Building this unit actually reflected on our program design since it made us look back at the objectives and KPIs of each program and ensure that they themselves were well defined to enable them to translate into measurable outputs, outcomes and impact. Having a strong management information system was also a critical part of establishing this unit, as the tens of thousands of data that would be captured, would need to be analyzed in efficient ways and presented and collated in ways that enabled decision making.
As we embarked on this journey of learning, we realized the importance of bringing our grantees, along with us. The establishment of the “Learning & Strategy” unit also meant the establishment of a focused program geared towards building the capacities of partner NGOs, to ensure that they have the tools and knowledge they need to be effective partners in this journey. This partnership also required a mindset shift from the NGOs merely seeing themselves as “implementers” and us as “auditors” out to assess their success, to seeing themselves as partners with us both working with the same mission to have the greatest impact possible.
We are still in our early days and it has not been an easy path, but we are certain we are heading in the right direction, and that we will be able to not only narrate positive success stories of the lives we have touched or share grand figures in our annual reports, but that we will be able to be much more granular and will develop insights that can benefit the development community in Egypt and globally.
Executive Director at Sawiris Foundation
Sawiris Foundation mission is to contribute to Egypt’s development, create sustainable job opportunities, and empower citizens to build productive lives that realize their full potential. Read more on their website: https://sawirisfoundation.org/