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How to Create a MERL Culture within Your Organization

Written by Jana Melpolder, MERL Tech DC Volunteer and former ICT Works Editor. Find Jana on Twitter:  @JanaMelpolder

As organizations grow, they become increasingly aware of how important MERL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning) is to their international development programs. To meet this challenge, new hires need to be brought on board, but more importantly, changes need to happen in the organization’s culture.

How can nonprofits and organizations change to include more MERL? Friday afternoon’s MERL Tech DC  session “Creating a MERL Culture at Your Nonprofit” set out to answer that question. Representatives from Salesforce.org and Samaschool.org were part of the discussion.

Salesforce.org staff members Eric Barela and Morgan Buras-Finlay emphasized that their organization has set aside resources (financial and otherwise) for international and external M&E. “A MERL culture is the foundation for the effective use of technology!” shared Eric Barela.

Data is a vital part of MERL, but those providing it to organizations often need to “hold the hands” of those on the receiving end. What is especially vital is helping people understand this data and gain deeper insight from it. It’s not just about the numbers – it’s about what is meant by those numbers and how people can learn and improve using the data.

According to Salesforce.org, an organization’s MERL culture is comprised of its understanding of the benefit of defining, measuring, understanding, and learning for social impact with rigor. And building or maintaining a MERL culture doesn’t just mean letting the data team do whatever they like or being the ones in charge. Instead, it’s vital to focus on outcomes. Salesforce.org discussed how its MERL staff prioritize keeping a foot in the door in many places and meeting often with people from different departments.

Where does technology fit into all of this? According to Salesforce.org, the push is on keep the technology ethical. Morgan Buras-Finlay described it well, saying “technology goes from building a useful tool to a tool that will actually be used.”

Another participant on Friday’s panel was Samaschool’s Director of Impact, Kosar Jahani. Samaschool describes itself as a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on preparing low-income populations to succeed as independent workers. The organization has “brought together a passionate group of social entrepreneurs and educators who are reimagining workforce development for the 21st century.”

Samaschool creates a MERL culture through Learning Calls for their different audiences and funders. These Learning Calls are done regularly, they have a clear agenda, and sometimes they even happen openly on Facebook LIVE.

By ensuring a high level of transparency, Samasource is also aiming to create a culture of accountability where it can learn from failures as well as successes. By using social media, doors are opened and people have an easier time gaining access to information that otherwise would have been difficult to obtain.

Kosar explained a few negative aspects of this kind of transparency, saying that there is a risk to putting information in such a public place to view. It can lead to lost future investment. However, the organization feels this has helped build relationships and enhanced interactions.

Sadly, flight delays prevented a third organization. Big Elephant Studios and its founder Andrew Means from attending MERL Tech. Luckily, his slides were presented by Eric Barela. Andrew’s slides highlighted the following three things that are needed to create a MERL Culture:

  • Tools – investments in tools that help an organization acquire, access, and analyze the data it needs to make informed decisions
  • Processes – Investments in time to focus on utilizing data and supporting decision making
  • Culture – Organizational values that ensure that data is invested in, utilized, and listened to

One of Andrew’s main points was that generally, people really do want to gain insight and learn from data. The other members of the panel reiterated this as well.

A few lingering questions from the audience included:

  • How do you measure how culture is changing within an organization?
  • How does one determine if an organization’s culture is more focused on MERL that previously?
  • Which social media platforms and strategies can be used to create a MERL culture that provides transparency to clients, funders, and other stakeholders?

What about you? How do you create and measure the “MERL Culture” in your organization?