Monitoring the 4 Returns

In this chapter

  • Your 4 Returns monitoring plan, based on a set of indicators tailored to your landscape, allows you to share your results and impact with stakeholders, and to learn about your work and adapt your approach accordingly.
  • The 4 Returns indicator menu provides a set of indicators to choose from when building your 4 Returns monitoring plan. It builds on themes of the 4 Returns.
  • The indicators you choose depend on your purpose for monitoring, your intended results, and your preferred research methodologies.

When you implement your landscape plan, each time you reflect on your progress and changes in the landscape, you measure impact. Measuring impact helps to: 

  • Show the impact of restoration actions and, if needed, adapt your approach to improve the impact of projects in the landscape
  • Encourage others to replicate successful projects
  • Inspire financers to continue funding or begin to invest where they see progress

You could say that impact measurement is key to the implementation of your landscape plan.

Measuring impact requires three stages — monitoring, evaluating, and learning (MEL). There are many generic resources on how to set up a MEL plan. This chapter explains how to monitor the 4 Returns specifically — addressing the “M” in MEL. We will introduce the 4 Returns indicator menu: a set of indicators that you can use to develop a 4 Returns monitoring plan for your landscape. The 4 Returns indicator menu builds on the themes of the 4 Returns that were introduced in the chapter Unpacking the 4 Returns. 

This chapter aims to help you create your own 4 Returns monitoring plan, which you can use to share your results and impact with stakeholders. The plan also allows you to learn about your work and adapt your approach accordingly. You can use the 4 Returns indicator menu as inspiration, with suggestions on what and how to monitor. This chapter could inspire you with ideas about evaluation too.

To learn more about the basic principles of creating a MEL plan, check out the companion guide A quick-start guide to Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning for holistic landscape restoration. The guide describes steps for developing an impact measurement system, with practical tips along the way.

Building on the themes of the 4 Returns

The 4 Returns indicator menu builds on the themes of each of the 4 Returns as introduced in the chapter Unpacking the 4 Returns. You can read more about the meaning and rationale of these themes, and how they relate, in that chapter. 

How to read the 4 Returns indicator menu

For each theme and effect of the 4 Returns (see figure on previous page), we developed indicators in the 4 Returns indicator menu to help you develop your 4 Returns monitoring plan. Wherever possible, indicators and methods were developed from existing and well-used frameworks, such as UNEP Land Use Impact Hub, USAID, WRI, LandScale, and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

Here are some guidelines for using the 4 Returns indicator menu to create your own 4 Returns monitoring plan. 

  • All the indicators measure progress towards the achievement of an expected result. To measure changes, a baseline and one or more follow-up measurements are useful.
  • Selecting indicators from the menu clarifies the performance and evolving context of the strategy and actions for your landscape. The indicators in the menu are suggestions; you can adapt, contextualise, or change the indicators for your monitoring plan to suit your landscape plan.
  • The themes may not cover all elements of your interventions. Other themes and indicators can be added.

We will keep testing and adapting the 4 Returns indicator menu depending on what proves valuable for practitioners. If you have suggestions for other themes or indicators, let us know! 

Recommended indicators to start monitoring

From the menu we selected some indicators that we recommend to start with, because the menu can be quite overwhelming. These indicators are recommended because:

  • They provide basic insight into the progress towards creating the 4 Returns, at output, outcome, and impact levels equally.
  • They are universal in the sense that we expect many 4 Returns landscape restoration projects will work on these themes.
  • They are feasible to monitor, even by practitioners who are less experienced in monitoring.

Beside the recommended indicators, which of the other indicators from the menu you choose will depend on whether your landscape plan focuses on these outcomes or not.

Levels of impact

Some changes in the landscape are expected earlier than others or lead to other expected changes. To distinguish these different levels of change, the indicators in the 4 Returns indicator menu are organised according to the following structure: 

  • Output indicators signal a direct result of your work in the landscape.
  • Outcome indicators signal a change in the behaviour of landscape stakeholders, such as farmers, community members, and businesses.
  • Impact indicators signal the effects of both the practitioner’s work and landscape stakeholders’ work and generally pinpoint the end goal of the landscape plan.

Monitoring frequency

How often should you monitor the indicators? The recommended frequency depends on when you expect a change in an indicator. It also depends on practical considerations, such as affordability and the time that it takes to measure the indicator. Some indicators, mostly those at output and outcome levels, require annual monitoring. Other indicators either change less quickly or are difficult to monitor annually, for example stakeholder questionnaires. These “complex” indicators could be used in an evaluation or monitored every three to four years. Complex indicators can be difficult to measure unless you have either expertise in social research or an ecological background. 

Recommended measurement methods

For each indicator in the 4 Returns indicator menu, we suggest at least one research methodology. Where an indicator has several research methodologies, you can choose the method best suited to your expertise. In the case of indicators where no pre-existing method was available, one was developed based on our experience and expert consultation. Methods include: 

  • Registration. Output-related indicators can be registered simply by the landscape restoration practitioner or businesses in the landscape that carry out the actions in the landscape plan.
  • Social research. Most impact indicators under the social and inspirational returns require measurement with stakeholders in the landscape, for example individuals or groups. This could be done by:
    • Questionnaires. They reach the most people. In the indicator menu, for each indicator you can find questions with statements on a four-point scale — totally disagree, disagree, agree, and totally agree.
    • Individual or group interviews. They allow greater depth on the how and why questions, but are more time-consuming, so generally fewer people can respond.
  • Ecological sampling. For many of the natural returns, it is useful to collect samples and analyse them, such as transects, photographs, soil samples, and water samples. This can be time-intensive when sampling is needed in multiple locations.
  • Spatial data. Satellite data to support spatial analysis can be efficient and low-cost with the right expertise but is only useful when there are physical changes in the landscape that can be observed with satellite data.
  • Modelling. This can be useful to estimate an indicator where exact measurements are not feasible, for example in the case of soil carbon measurement or biodiversity measurements.
  • Self-reflection. For all indicators, you can also reflect on the changes based on your own experience and work in the landscape. Be cautious because this is less objective and therefore less reliable for external audiences than primary data collection from stakeholders in the landscape..

Sometimes the 4 Returns indicator menu links to other methodologies, which can help you to select a method.

Suggested breakdowns

For some output indicators, we recommend splitting up the groups of stakeholders being monitored to create a more detailed picture of who you’re reaching. We suggest these categories: 

  • Gender. Making a distinction between whether you reach men, women, or nonbinary stakeholders uncovers social equity within the community.
  • Age. Another measure of social equity is to test your reach to youth. You should define the age of youth to suit the context of the landscape. The official UN definition is below 25, but some Western landscapes define youth as 35, or even 45, when it addresses young entrepreneurs.
  • Stakeholder background. This tells you the diversity of people reached. Examples of stakeholder types include large-scale farmers and foresters, smallholder farmers and subsistence farmers (less than two hectares), other businesses, conservation and rewilding practitioners, restoration NGOs, government, and other, such as community members and service providers.
  • Marginalised groups. This is mainly relevant in areas where Indigenous Peoples or other communities tend to be marginalised. Zone. For some indicators, when this is clearly defined in your landscape, it is relevant to distinguish between the 3 Zones: natural, combined, and economic zone.
  • Other. Depending on the indicator, you may want to distinguish on specific things, for example product type or financing source.

Using the 4 Returns indicator menu

The 4 Returns indicator menu is vast and would be time-consuming for any practitioner to use in its entirety. So, to develop your own monitoring plan, it’s important to select the best indicators to reflect your landscape plan. Here are three things to consider when making your choice. 

Purpose of monitoring

Firstly, how do you plan to use the data? For more on purpose, see A quick-start guide to Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning for holistic landscape restoration. To decide the purpose of monitoring, it is good to involve your most important stakeholders. Different stakeholders may have a variety of monitoring interests, and taking their needs into account will create support for your monitoring plan. So, before you start, find out the information needs of your stakeholders, and whether these stakeholders are representative of all voices — human or other — in the landscape. 

Your intended results

Secondly, you should decide what to monitor according to your intended results. You can identify your intended results: 

  • If you have a Theory of Change or similar, the 4 Returns highlight the changes you want to achieve and how they relate to your actions; these are your intended results. Find out about the Theory of Change in the chapter From vision to action. Comparing the intended results in the Theory of Change with the themes of the 4 Returns (see above) will signal which indicators in the menu are relevant. If you don’t have a Theory of Change or similar, you can use the interaction map of the 4 Returns (see below). Pick the beige boxes that match your actions to see what results can be expected in the landscape. Then, look at the menu to see which indicators belong to each of these effects.

When you know the intended results, you can use the 4 Returns indicator menu to select indicators that could be relevant to you. As mentioned above, we recommend first looking at the recommended indicators, and deciding whether they apply to your landscape plan. After that, depending on your purpose for monitoring and interest, you can select other indicators. 

Tip: Think critically about whether you really need to monitor a result. Sometimes, the evidence provided in scientific literature is enough, so you can focus on monitoring other results instead. Look at what is being researched by others before deciding what to monitor yourself. There are many scientific literature sources, databases, and credible open-source publications, including the UNCCD Global Database on Sustainable Land Management WOCAT database , the World Database of Protected Areas and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Consensus app is an AI-based tool to collate the most important conclusions from articles.

Preferred research methodologies

Thirdly, which indicator you select depends on the methods you choose to use. This can be steered by your preference and need, or by your capacity for monitoring, including your budget, skills, and time. If you have experience with social research, opting for indicators from the themes in the social and inspirational returns is more feasible, for example.

Start using your 4 Returns monitoring plan

  • After you’ve designed your 4 Returns monitoring plan, think about some practical steps to implement it. For more about this, read A quick-start guide to Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning for holistic landscape restoration.
  • For each indicator, you need to design measurement tools. You will compose questions for a questionnaire, for example. Some examples of tools can be found in the 4 Returns indicator menu, such as suitable questions to use in an interview or questionnaire format.
  • Think about doing a baseline of the indicators before the implementation of actions starts. This helps you to set targets and test the indicators on feasibility and relevance. In addition to measuring change, you might also like to measure the contribution of your actions to this change. In that case, you need to integrate a contribution analysis in the monitoring, which should be designed upfront.
  • For some indicators, there is a difference in how you measure accumulated data and separated data. When measuring the area under restoration, for example, you can measure the total area reached, or focus on specific restoration measures in which only part of the total area is reached. This potentially differs per measure. So, decide upfront whether to measure accumulated, separated, or both.
  • Progress and effects of interventions need to be monitored and evaluated to adapt landscape management and to improve planning and strategies as the process develops. More guidance on monitoring and adaptive management can found in A Landscape Approach in steps 7 for Disaster Risk Reduction in 7 Steps, in the section Promote adaptive management.

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