20 March 2024

Understanding the power play in MEL

Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) within philanthropy often operates within the shadow of unexamined power dynamics. Yet, it is here, amid the web of data and results, that power exerts its most profound influence. The way we understand, measure, and evaluate impact is deeply intertwined with power, and acknowledging this fact is the first step toward redressing power asymmetries.

MEL is commonly referred to as a process for assessing and understanding the effectiveness and outcomes of various projects and programmes. However, what is considered effective, impactful, or significant can be profoundly influenced by who holds the power to define these terms. These definitions often originate from the perspective of donors, typically from advanced economies in Europe and North America whose resources and influence shape the direction of grantmaking initiatives.

This power dynamic extends further to the methodologies used in MEL. Dominant methodologies, often rooted in established power structures, influence how knowledge is created. They might exclude alternative methods or perspectives, thereby limiting our understanding of what truly constitutes ‘’impact.’’ They also shape perceptions about whose knowledge is considered valuable and what type of evidence is deemed more ‘‘credible.’’

The power to collect, analyse, and interpret data, for instance, rests largely with the grantmakers, which often leads to results being framed from their perspective, significantly divergent from the experiences and viewpoints of the grantees. Standardised approaches, dominant research methods, and universal notions of rigor perpetuate this power imbalance.

Picture this: You’re an MEL manager, alongside you are your programme manager, who serves as a bridge between your programmes and your board’s vision. Your foundation is preparing to shift its funding strategy. You’ve arranged a meeting with your grantee partner to communicate the new vision.

In this meeting, you and your colleague hold a unique position of authority. You control the financial resources and make vital decisions. In fact, the very ability to change strategy without any mechanism of accountability is an expression of power. This meeting represents a critical juncture, one that can become intense and even perplexing. The complexities of power dynamics are vividly displayed, shaping both the interaction and the outcomes.

Historically, this power dynamic has been palpable in grantmaker-grantee relationships. The grantmaker’s authority, stemming from their financial resources, often creates hierarchical structures within these partnerships. However, a trust-based relationship represents a different paradigm – one characterised by equity and shared decision-making. In such a context, conversations about shifting strategies become more open and productive.

To explore the intricacies of power dynamics in grantmaker-grantee relationships, we turned to Forum Theatre – a dynamic and insightful tool for dialogue, self-reflection, and transformation, together with a group of MEL professionals. Having its roots in social change movements of South America, this method allows us to gain experiential understanding, becoming active participants and co-creators in the process. In Forum Theatre, actors receive guiding instructions but are free to shape the narrative. As the story unfolds for the first time, the audience observes without interference. But here’s the twist: the spectactors can intervene when the play is performed for the second time if they spot issues and redirect the narrative with fresh instructions. It’s a striking exercise in empowerment.

Our exploration resulted in valuable recommendations:

  • Ensure that the physical setting fosters equality between grantmakers and grantees. Hierarchies and divisions should find no place in the room. Even the very presence of a table might inject a power imbalance. During the co-construction phase, one participant shouted, ‘‘Let’s get rid of the table!’’ This resulted in two peers sitting closer together, with no physical objects posing as barriers.
  • When engaging in conversations, demonstrate a sincere interest in the perspectives and needs of grantees. View these interactions as more than routine procedures. Consider how to genuinely facilitate the work of grantee partners and support them effectively. Focus on working collaboratively as a valuable resource and on deepening learning practices.
  • Be forthright about changes in your strategic priorities and their potential consequences for existing grantees. Avoid creating false expectations. Openly communicate these shifts as early as possible to allow grantees ample time to adjust and plan. Initiate a dialogue to explore how these changes may impact their projects and discuss potential ways to mitigate any negative effects.
  • Engage with grantees early in the decision-making process, ensuring their insights and needs are considered. This collaborative approach can help alleviate potential negative consequences and strengthen the partnership.
  • Express sincere appreciation for the partnership and communicate your gratitude genuinely and clearly. Avoid using superficial niceties or vague compliments as a cover for impending exits or significant changes.
  • Share your personal perspective in discussions, adding a human dimension to the interaction while ensuring it aligns with your organisation’s views and policies. Grantmakers are people, not mere representatives of institutions. It’s important to remember that behind every professional role lies an individual with personal insights and experiences.
  • Acknowledge the unique power that grantees possess, derived from their specialised expertise and deep community connections. When engaging in conversations, approach with an open mind, recognising that their needs and perspectives might diverge from your initial expectations.

Within the scenario presented at the Forum Theatre, the grantmaker not only shifts their priorities but also proposes a new impact evaluation framework, believed to be superior in assessing and enhancing impact. This situation again brought power dynamics to the forefront. The core issue goes beyond the mere desire for increased ‘‘impact.’’ It’s fundamentally about redefining impact within your organisation, a process that should not be unilateral. It’s crucial to involve grantee partners in this discourse, valuing their expertise and being receptive to their honest feedback.

Addressing power asymmetries is a big project and power issues are incredibly complex. Are there any practical steps you can take on your journey to foster more equitable knowledge-building in MEL? If you are committed to undertaking this mission, consider these alternative approaches:

  • Begin with listening and understanding the field through the eyes of stakeholders. Then proceed with document review.
  • Adapt the concept of rigor to specific contexts rather than relying on standardised approaches. Work closely with grantee partners to develop evaluation frameworks tailored to the specific characteristics and local context of each project. Avoid the direct adaptation of indicators from Europe and North America to other geographic regions.
  • Move beyond conventional methods like interviews and surveys. Create spaces for peers to learn from each other and contribute meaningfully.
  • Challenge preconceived notions of who is considered ‘’knowledgeable.’’ Expertise extends beyond academic backgrounds and professional ranks. Lived experience holds significant value in social change work and transcends the boundaries of academic credentials and professional hierarchies, as it brings forth a profound understanding rooted in personal encounters and struggles.
  • MEL should not be one-sided or extractive of knowledge from grantees. It should be a mutually beneficial, co-creative process.
  • Shift the focus of MEL from compliance and control to ongoing learning. Don’t wait for annual evaluations to learn and adapt.

And remember MEL is not just about numbers – it’s about narratives, experiences, and, above all, the power to define the story. To make knowledge building and MEL more equitable, we must go beyond norms established by power holders and embrace inclusive, and context-specific approaches. This effort involves recognising that power in the MEL landscape is multifaceted and complex, reshaping those power dynamics, and becoming more accountable. This journey demands dedication and hard work, and we shouldn’t underestimate its challenges. We hope that more funders will actively engage with these complexities and become part of Philea Evidence and Learning community of practice that learns and grows together.


Sevda Kilicalp
Head of Research and Knowledge Development, Philea
Stefanos Oikonomou
Head of Programmes – Peer-Exchanges, Philea