Learning and Accountability
No retrospective monitoring
During the first years of her existence, Mama Cash only spent the interest of the loan that founder Marjan Sax had offered at the organisation’s birth. Mama Cash had never been called to justify the way that she spent that money. The 1987–1990 ‘annual report’ declares: ‘As soon as the money is granted, Mama Cash’s work is done. We don’t do retrospective monitoring. We are principally against it. We are not willing to do a police officer’s job by checking whether “the money was spent the way it was intended”’. Women’s groups reported to Mama Cash by sending letters, making phone calls or organising meetings to share their experiences. They would sometimes send books, films or magazines published with Mama Cash’s support.
The monitoring system begins
When Mama Cash started receiving donations from individual donors in the early 1990s and from large private funds and governments during the second half of the 1990s, she had to revise her initial principles. She had to account for every guilder. In 1994, her financial administration was evaluated by an accountant for the first time. During that time, Mama Cash also started setting up a basic monitoring system in which basic information was registered about the way groups spent the money that they had received.
The first few attempts at evaluating the way women’s groups spent their subsidies, were not always well-received. Lin Chew, former Board member of the Fund for the Global South: ‘There was a lot of pressure on groups to fill out many forms in order to account for their spending. As an organisation with an office space and employees in a city such as Amsterdam, it is sometimes hard to imagine things elsewhere are organised in a less sophisticated manner. One can justify having high requirements for grant requests. But one can’t expect organisations with few paid employees to meet all those criteria for monitoring their activities’.
Monitoring and evaluation were not Mama Cash’s strong points for a long time. Former Executive Director Lilianne Ploumen: ‘We didn’t have sufficient resources, time or personnel to do so. Being part of the women’s movement, we weren’t keen on having to monitor either. We reviewed requests meticulously, after which we put our trust in the women’s organisations involved. We were convinced of their good intentions’. Luckily, in the 1990s, donors were willing to tolerate Mama Cash’s imperfect reporting skills. They liked working with an organisation that they perceived as innovative and taboo-breaking as Mama Cash.
Making social change visible
During the first years of the new millennium, however, the necessary adjustments had to be made. Evaluation by telling stories had become insufficient. Former Executive Director Ellen Sprenger: ‘Our donors became more demanding. They wanted to see actual results’. But how to make social change visible? And to whose benefit: groups receiving money, large investors or Mama Cash herself? Mama Cash was not the only one to struggle with these questions. Other women’s funds were also facing the prospect of having to make more transparent their results in order to remain eligibile for funding from institutional donors. The Women’s Funding Network (WFN) in the United States then developed an evaluation tool: Making the Case.
First brave attempt
Mama Cash tested Making the Case with her grantees and used it to evaluate groups supported between 2005 and 2008. The evaluation tool, however, turned out not to be fully applicable in practice. Annie Hillar, Director of Programmes from 2008 till 2012, recalls: ‘Many groups were overwhelmed by our questions at the end of a grant period. They didn’t know how to deal with them. The questionaire was an academically written document in English that ran for seventeen pages. Many activists didn’t have sufficient knowledge of English to be able to understand the questions’. The tool also put a strain on the link of confidence between the activists in the field and Mama Cash: What would happen with the information gathered? Who else had access to it? For Mama Cash, it was an impossible task to process the amount of information gathered from the more than 200 groups she was supporting at the time. Hillar: ‘Making the Case was a brave first attempt to make social change visible within a feminist framework. It became evident that we needed a different way of evaluating the groups, one that would benefit all of the parties involved: the activists, the donors and Mama Cash’.
Evaluation part of the grants process
In her new strategic plan, 2009 – 2013 On the Move for Women’s Rights, Mama Cash decided that she would support fewer groups with larger and multi-year grants. Also, evaluation would become an integral part of the process of requesting and granting funds. Annie Hillar: ‘Nowadays, groups request grants from us by submitting a concise Letter of Intent. If we think that we will support a particular group, we proceed by setting up a work plan together. The work plan concerns both the process and the changes and results an organisation wants to achieve. If a group and Mama Cash agree to work together, the work plan, budget and a specific evaluation plan will be part of the contract’.
Learning for Change
During the course of the year, as well as near the end of a group’s grant period, Mama Cash provides the group with feedback at specified intervals. Also, the groups evaluate their own activities by answering questions with which they are already familiar. Hillar: ‘We call this process of evaluating Learning for Change. It does not mean we over-exert groups. On the contrary, the groups experience it as a learning process, while at the same time, they get to demonstrate accountability for their activities. The evaluation has become part of their process. It gives them information about their own development. We do not just ask groups to commit to Learning for Change, Mama Cash herself has to commit to this process of evaluation, too, and to continuously learning about her interaction with the groups’.