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During teacher training, women work in small groups to create fun and engaging ways to teacher the Little Ripples program pillars of peace, helping, and sharing to their future students. Photo Cred: iACT, 2018

Guest blog by Joanna Knight, Director of merl

Case studies are often used by organisations to explore in-depth a program, event, activity, process or other phenomenon in relation to its surroundings, within a defined space and time frame. Organisations use case studies to evaluate the outcomes and impacts of their intervention(s) and generate learning on ‘what works’ and ‘what does not work’.  

In July 2023, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) commissioned merl to develop two impact case studies of HIF-funded innovations: the Safe Water Optimisation Tool (SWOT) and SH+ 360. As one of the three researchers involved, I share some of my reflections on adopting an evaluative case study approach in this blog. This approach captured in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of interventions within the complex humanitarian problems they aim to address. I discuss key considerations for optimising the effectiveness of case studies, not just as a process of data collection or a written output, but as strategic evaluative tools. 

It is important to approach case studies with intentionality to enhance their effectiveness as evaluative tools.

Clearly defining the primary strategic purpose of developing the case studies and how they fit within an organisation’s wider monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) framework helps establish parameters. This clarity aids in defining the scope, the case unit, the timeframe under investigation, the key evaluative questions to pursue and the methodology to use. 

 

Figure 1: Process map highlighting how identifying your purpose of the case study approach leads to other key decisions.

Key considerations for effective case studies

1) Purpose matters

Case studies are produced for different purposes – for example, donor accountability, showcasing ‘success’ to external audiences, or investigating specific challenges or learning areas.  Although many case studies have more than one purpose (e.g. for learning and communication), to maximise their effectiveness it is important to be clear about what we want to achieve with the case study. When a case study  is produced without a clear strategic purpose, its ability to support wider learning or evaluative processes for an organisation can be lost. 

Having a clear strategic intention for the case studies can inform many choices: the case unit (the event, project or intervention), the defined space and/or the time frame, the research questions, the best data collection methods, and even the format of the case study. Therefore, having a clear strategic purpose enables a better chain of informed decisions on the case study development. 

An important question to consider is whether the intention is to compare different case studies to identify common themes and draw more generalised conclusions (which is not possible from a single case unit). If cross-analysis is desired, what is the overarching analytical framework to allow for generalisations? This will also determine variables that you may wish to keep consistent – in terms, for example, of innovation stage, theme, or context.

2) Supporting learning

Leading on from point one, if the case studies primarily serve as evaluative tool – then it is important to understand how they fit into the MEAL framework and support gathering learning and evidence for the organisation or project. Integrating a strategic evaluative case study approach within a wider system can add value to reflective learning practices. 

Even if the case studies primarily are for donor compliance and communications, it might be useful to consider how they can also play a role within the MEAL system to maximise their value. 

3) Recognising trade-offs and alternatives 

It is important to recognise the trade-off between breadth (providing information on different aspects of the innovation) and depth (being able to do a deep dive and thoroughly investigate certain aspects of an innovation). 

How much flexibility we have with the budget also determines choices. The budget dictates how much time will be available for the case study. We may have to choose between breadth and depth of information: answer many questions briefly or explore a few questions in depth, with the opportunity to pursue interesting lines of inquiry as they are identified. A case study, as a singular unit, with a limited budget, focused on a particular time-frame and space can complement a wider evaluation process. However, it can not replace a formative, summative, process or impact evaluation of an innovation as a whole. Therefore, is a case study approach the most appropriate? 

The same goes for the timeframe to undertake the case study. There may be external pressures which impact deadlines, which also influence the amount of time the researcher(s) have to conduct the primary data collection and analysis. Working within the practical constraints (budget and timeframe) will inform the potential methods available for data collection and analysis. For example, it is not possible to use highly participatory methods with small budgets and short timeframes, as time is needed to work together with participants, build trust, identify, recognise and address power dynamics, support inputs and co-produce together. A prioritisation exercise might be useful to ensure the scope remains manageable within the practical constraints of time and budget. 

I don’t believe that there is a golden bullet for evaluative case study approaches, however being strategic about the purpose will only add value and trigger a chain of decision-making processes to ensure the outputs are as useful as possible. 

Find out more

Explore our work on research uptake and impact through our collection of  Research Impact Case Studies, and our Research Impact Framework.

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