Stay Connected
Stories of Life Change

Monitoring, Evaluation, and Navigating Complexity: Why the easy way isn’t always the best way

One of the most important parts of Plant With Purpose’s work is measuring its efficacy. This is also one of the most difficult parts.

As we apply our model of Community Designed Restoration© (CDR) to rural watersheds across the globe, we want to ensure that our work is having its intended impact. As trees are planted and Purpose Groups are launched, the ultimate goal is revitalized ecosystems, families escaping poverty, and the transformation of communities.

Monitoring and evaluation is vital.

We’ve long prioritized monitoring and evaluation, which has led to learning, improvements, and continuing our work with greater confidence. We actively avoid practices like greenwashing, where the environmental appearance of an activity is promoted but the actual long-term impact is questionable. 

Placing such a strong emphasis on monitoring and evaluation is not the easy route, but the easy route doesn’t lead where we want to go. Through forty years of experience, we have learned there is no panacea to entrenched problems like deforestation and extreme poverty. The act of data collection benefits from consistency, but our work does not lend itself to a “cookie cutter” approach. Our highly localized tree planting methodology contains a lot of variables—different species planted by different communities in different locations.

With Community Designed Restoration, we also measure things in a way that is easy to understand for those new to our work, and that is somewhat consistent with the monitoring practices of our peer organizations. As our reforestation work gains more global attention, we are increasingly asked to align our model with various metrics that make it much easier and convenient to compare hundreds of “reforestation” organizations around the world. 

Understandably, individual donors and foundations benefit from being able to see the impact of organizations in a clear and consistent way.. But the comparison isn’t always straightforward. Due to different approaches to reforestation, different circumstances across different countries, Community Designed Restoration often feels like a round peg in a square hole.

Simplification for the sake of comparison? It’s not that simple.

Having external verifiers is valuable. In addition to the fresh perspective and greater objectivity that comes from having a third-party evaluator, there is an ability to compare efforts across the entire industry. When it comes to evaluating nonprofits, for example, Charity Navigator has done an incredible service for donors by helping them see how nonprofits have performed regarding financial transparency and stewardship.

Plant With Purpose is proud to have earned four out of four stars from Charity Navigator yet again in 2023, scoring 100% on accountability & finance, culture & community, and leadership & adaptability. In every area where we were evaluated, we received the highest possible score.

Recently, Charity Navigator has also begun evaluating the impact of reforestation organizations specifically. However, we learned they were unable to assess Plant With Purpose’s impact as a reforestation organization because we do not use a plantation model. This is just a recent example of how the complexity of our more holistic approach presents a challenge to evaluation efforts. However, that complexity is a clear strength for our work. 

Charity Navigator’s criteria is largely based around carbon impacts in comparison to average emissions by a U.S. household, an equation that cannot be easily applied to models with diverse land use. For the evaluation question, ‘(do you) afforest or reforest by converting unforested grassland, cropland, or wetland into tree plantations with the goal of sequestering carbon,’ we had to answer, “No. We work in deforested areas to restore the natural ecosystem and biodiversity, not tree plantations. Our primary goal is to empower rural farming families to rise out of poverty. One result is that partnering families sequester several metric tons of CO2e annually.”  

Community Designed Restoration on the ground

Most reforestation investors want to make sure that the exact trees that they have funded are being planted, which is important in order to avoid greenwashing. This has led to an increased demand for tree planting practices that are easier to monitor and measure, such as tree plantations. 

Evaluation methods like geotagged photos or quantifying exact species are easier for tree planting efforts that simply plant one type of tree in one location. However, this approach contradicts the advice of our local agronomists and technicians who encourage a diversity of trees and crops planted through agroforestry systems (emphasizing native species) to improve the broader watershed, biodiversity, and overall production of farms.

In fact, simplified tree plantations are potentially less effective and at times even harmful. A large-scale monoculture plantation lacks genetic diversity and can be more vulnerable to climate change or crop disease. This has been observed by our local team as smallholder farmers with traditional monocropping struggle to meet the same yields year over year.

We cannot overlook the impact of reforestation on local communities. This is why we developed Community Designed Restoration. And this is why we will not reduce the efficacy of our model to simplify the reporting process. 

This isn’t just a problem for measuring reforestation. 

This is not the only example when evaluation criteria has not reflected the impact of our model. One of the greatest strengths of our work is the impact it has on reducing poverty, particularly in the locations where poverty is most severe. Oftentimes, poverty reduction is evaluated by the question, “Is it creating new jobs?”

We do not directly pay farmers to plant trees, so in a sense, no, we are not creating jobs. However, as we see farm yields increase, farmers experience greater productivity and economic growth from the jobs (farming) they were already working. Then, as partnering farmers are able to spend less time on their farm each week and have greater access to loans and capital, they regularly start new businesses and create new streams of income, for example raising livestock. We know participating farmers typically have 2.5 months in savings (compared to nonparticipants with one month's savings). But whether or not that fits the definition of creating jobs may vary.

Another persistent challenge for Plant With Purpose and our signature Community Designed Restoration model—which places reforestation decisions firmly in the hands of our partnering communities—is that it prioritizes the community’s autonomy. We intentionally don’t have binding agreements on what trees are planted or how land will be used. This is so that, as farmers are learning from their environmental curriculum, they internalize the value of caring for their ecosystem. Actions are done out of their own motivation and not because it is being externally driven. This is a better predictor of long-term sustainability that also respects each partner’s agency and knowledge.

Ultimately, we will continue to take the harder path

Just as environmental damage and extreme poverty are complex issues, our model is also complex. And for us, this is a strength. We have developed comprehensive impact evaluations to measure all aspects of our Theory of Change. In fact, we will publish our third triennial impact report in 2024. We conduct an intensive, triennial impact evaluation that applies a variety of surveying and measurement methodologies to ascertain the effect of our work. We have the proof to demonstrate that the holistic impact we are seeking is, in fact, occurring.

We know that with an incomplete method of evaluation, it can be possible to achieve a very good score while doing harmful things to the environment, which is something we will never do. We are committed to doing well by our communities, even if it requires doing things the hard way.

These are the realities in the rapidly evolving field of reforestation. While it is challenging, it is also encouraging to see a surge in interest. Planting trees and reevaluating our relationship with land remains one of the most effective things we can do to reduce both poverty and climate damage. We recognize that, like a healthy forest, a diversity of approaches is the key to accomplishing the shared goal of improving our planet’s health. 

We encourage all allied and aligned organizations and institutions to hold space for the complexity of the work while continuing to pursue collaboration. We appreciate the ways various institutions are continuing to reevaluate these methods to accommodate greater complexity and to foster collaboration. Charity Navigator and other partners have engaged our monitoring, evaluation, and learning team, setting a positive example for the pursuit of collaboration.

About the Author

Philippe shares the stories of people living at the forefront of the climate crisis, who are working to transform their ecosystems and communities. He loves emphasizing the human experience, and keeping conversations about the environment centered on the communities most affected by it. Philippe has led storytelling trips to Mexico, Thailand, Colombia, Tanzania, South Africa, Haiti, and a number of other countries. He has previously served in similar roles at Liberty in North Korea and Mobility International.

Philippe obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He furthered his studies by earning a Master of Arts in International Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management at University of Oregon. Philippe is also an illustrator, podcaster, and digital artist. Outside of work, Philippe loves spending time with his wife and their three kids.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Inspiring Stories.
Actionable insights.

Sustainable living tips, and ways you can make a difference

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.