No small change. Evaluating the success of your community currency project
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Article by Leander Bindewald, Researcher/Project Manager, Complementary Currencies
Susan Steed, Researcher, Finance and Business
This handbook has been designed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), on behalf of the Community Currencies in Action (CCIA) EU Interreg IVB NWE Programme, project, to inspire community currency (CC) organisers and help them gain the most from their currency project by learning more about project evaluation and impact assessment. Getting to grips with project evaluation can help to make project aims clearer and also ensure that project support and funding is easier to achieve.
We provide guidance on how to evaluate the impact of a CC by using a Theory of Change (ToC). This is a process that suits a number of diverse project settings. It can be used as an instrumental initial step in defining a project’s aims and helping to evaluate its success.
We begin this handbook with a general introduction to impact assessment and evaluation. We then examine the idea of the ToC in more detail, including how to complete a ToC process, with hints and tips on running a ToC workshop to pin down your project aims and start to evaluate your progress. Finally, after completing your ToC, we look at the next steps to take and how to start collecting evidence that the intended outcomes of your currency project are taking place.
Who should read this handbook
This handbook will be useful for several audiences:
Community currency practitioners: You can use the framework we set out in this report if you are already running a currency or if you are at the early stages of thinking about starting a currency. Our approach can be used for a broad range of CC practices – from grassroots to local government initiatives.
Policy-makers and funders: You may work for local or national government and want to understand what sort of outcomes currencies can achieve and how to set about understanding these changes. The diversity of currency projects and outlooks often make it hard to understand what an individual initiative is aiming for. Our ToC approach can help reduce this ambiguity.
Researchers and practitioners in other areas: While the focus is on currency projects, the ToC approach can be used to evaluate any kind of project, particularly with complex multistakeholder interactions and wide-ranging social impacts.
From local economic decline to environmental degradation, money is at the heart of many of the world’s problems. As a result, more and more people are looking to new mediums of exchange as a way of tackling the challenges. During the financial crisis of 2008, we saw the rise of bit-coins and other crypto-currencies, and over the last decade innovations and interest in complementary – or community – currencies has reached an all-time high. Never before have there been so many initiatives, models, theories and widespread hopes in this field as today. Media attention is growing and politicians and policy-makers are showing a keen interest in the impact of CCs for individuals and communities.
But for many organisers, juggling day-to-day priorities can mean that monitoring project goals and evaluating a CC’s success can slip off the agenda. In some cases, the goals are unclear to start with, making evaluation even more difficult. Plus, some CCs have outcomes which are social or environmental and cannot be measured easily in economic terms. For the sustainable growth of this diverse field of practice, it is crucial that CC practitioners get better at defining their goals and measuring their progress towards them.
The need for evidence of success
Measuring the impact of your currency project is important. Without a clear understanding of what your aims are, your project strategy becomes guesswork. And without knowing how successful you have been in achieving your aims, funding and support for your project will be harder to come by.
There is no right way to evaluate your project – it all depends on the resources you have available and what you plan to do with the results. In Chapter 1 we examine impact assessments and how a ToC process can help as the first stage in your project evaluation.
What is a ToC and how can it measure impact?
A ToC has proven to be a simple, powerful and flexible tool to help you at any stage of a project and with any budget. At its most basic level, a ToC is a description of how your organisation or project brings about the change required to achieve its aims. It can be presented in a diagram or flow chart, or a diagram showing the stages of your project and how it meets its immediate and long-term goals.
Completing a ToC can be useful for several reasons:
It helps to clarify what the outcomes are that your project is trying to achieve. You can test these outcomes with your stakeholders and get feedback from them, modifying your plans if necessary.
It gives you a chance to interrogate whether the outcomes that you have set are realistic and think about what assumptions you are making about how change occurs.
In identifying what a project is hoping to achieve, and how, a ToC can form the basis of developing a full project evaluation framework.
The ToC process provides project clarity which can help all communications with your stakeholders, service users or funding partners
We examine the different types of ToC in Chapter 2
How to develop a ToC through a workshop
A good way to develop a ToC is to invite your key stakeholders together in a workshop. This gives them a chance to think about and debate what the shared goals of the project are and break them into outcomes for the short, medium and long term. The aim is to get clarity about what you are trying to achieve. You will find a practical guide for organising a ToC workshop in Chapter 3.
You can choose to use the information from your ToC workshop in several ways. It may give you a renewed or realigned focus for your project’s activities. It can also serve as the first stage in a more rigorous evaluation, or you can adapt it to suit your own specific purposes.
The key element of completing an evaluation like this is that you will be measuring your progress on outcomes that are important to your stakeholders. These outcomes are likely to be a mix of social, economic and environmental, and should reflect what your members or users value.
Using the ToC to kick-start your evidence gathering
A ToC does not provide evidence that outcomes are actually happening: it is a way of identifying what these outcomes are in the first place. For this reason it is a valuable first step towards working out what a full impact evaluation of your project would look like. Chapter 4 provides a brief introduction to designing this next phase of project evaluation:
What to measure: Good impact evaluations measure what is important, not just what is easiest to count. Break down outcomes from your ToC into clear indicators and set out how you will capture them in the short, medium and long term.
How to measure: There will be opportunities to collect data when you deliver your currency or by devising bespoke data collection tools.
When to measure: Gather baseline data before your project starts, or before someone joins your project, and capture change at regular intervals.
Who to involve: Be careful that participants are representative of your project and you are not just cherry-picking your best examples. If possible, is there a way that you can compare their outcomes against a control group of comparable people who did not take part in your project?
If you need more information on how to set up a currency project, you can find resources on our project website at www.ccia.eu. There you will find the growing toolkit on ToC under “Resources”.
New Economics Foundation