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Help! I haven’t done a baseline survey

How can we measure whether something has changed? First, we need to know what the situation was like at the start. But what if you have already started your project?

2016 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Impact and change – Footsteps 100

How positive change happens and how best to measure it

How can we measure whether something has changed? First, we need to know what the situation was like at the start. A good example of this is going on a diet: you weigh yourself before you start so that you can measure how much weight you eventually lose.

A baseline survey is a way of assessing a community’s situation at the start of your project. It is carried out either just before or at the beginning of the project. Any future changes that your work helps bring about can then be measured against these levels. 

But what if you have already started your project? You may not have realised that a baseline survey would be necessary to show the change the project is aiming to achieve. Or it may not have been possible to do a baseline survey before starting.

For example, if you are responding to an emergency there may not have been time to do a survey before starting to deliver aid.

In cases like these, there are a few ways that you can reconstruct information about the baseline:

  • You can use secondary data. This is information that has already been gathered by others – for example, hospital records, government data, studies by other organisations.
  • You could ask people to remember what they can about the situation at the start of the project. But people’s memories may not be entirely accurate. Check the information against other sources if you can.

If you decide to gather baseline information yourself at the start of a project, you can do this using focus group discussions (see pages 8–9), interviews and surveys with a representative sample of the community. Using several sources of information helps ensure your findings are accurate.

If you carry out a survey:

  • Decide on how you will collect the information – pen and paper or digitally?
    (See page 6.)
  • Ask questions that are important to your project and which give answers that you will want to measure against in the future. For example, if you are carrying out a hygiene promotion project, you might want to measure how many people can name the five key times they should wash their hands. At the end of the project you can ask the same questions again and compare the results.

For more information on how to carry out a survey, see page 5.

Compiled with reference to the IFRC guide, Baseline basics (see Resources, page 14).

Jonathan Simpson is Tearfund’s Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for Southern Africa.

Why do a baseline survey?

  • to help plan, monitor and evaluate projects
  • to set realistic targets for your work
  • to convince policy-makers and donors of the need for the project

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