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The Importance of Good Terms of Reference (ToR)  Printer-friendly Version
Evaluation studies normally are commissioned on basis of Terms of Reference (ToR). In a ToR the background of the study is described, including its motivation, the objectives of the study, the type of expertise required, its scope, duration etc. Therefore, the quality of the ToR is of crucial importance for the kind and quality of the evaluation that is to be implemented.

Incremental ToR, or copying parts of the ToR

To formulate good ToR is quite an undertaking, especially when it concerns the evaluation of large and/or complex programmes or projects. Those responsible therefore often copy (parts of) from earlier ToRs, e.g. evaluations made in the past for a similar intervention. In principle there is nothing against this practice of "incremental-ToR" as long as the parts that are specific for this particular evaluation are re-written or added. However, often this is not sufficiently the case. As a result, the ToR for many evaluations are not really formulated in such a way that those entrusted to do the evaluation avail over clear, transparent or unambiguous instructions. Obviously, such a situation represents a missed chance to make sure that the evaluation yields the best results in terms of lessons to be learned and/or the accountability to be demonstrated. Therefore, we do not recommend this practice. Instead, it is better to use previous ToRs to make a checklist of points to be included in the ToR that should be formulated and to formulate the ToR in a tailor-made way.

ToR and Evaluation Design

Another shortcoming often encountered when drafting ToR concerns the strategy to be followed in order to arrive at conclusions. Very often the evaluation research modalities are too specifically determined in the ToR. However, in this way the research design is already pre-determined thus restricting the creativity of the evaluator and his/her ability to propose creative solution to complicated problems. Sometimes, principals (those who contract the evaluator) have chosen to do so on purpose, to make sure that certain aspects dealt with in the evaluation in a manner the organisation desires (e.g. in order to assure comparability with previous evaluations), or even, in order to make sure that certain issues and factors are not included in the evaluation exercise. In general we recommend that ToR are specific on the background and the objectives while leaving the strategy to be followed as open as possible.

Evaluation Budget

There are many other reasons why ToR are not of optimal quality. One question sometimes posed (by the principals) concerns the issue whether or not to mention the upper limit of the available (evaluation) budget. Some organisations do not mention any amount at all and believe that this would result in evaluation proposals with the best price/yield performance. This is possible in theory if the ToR would be extremely specific in terms of outputs and strategy, but this is rarely the case. As indicated above it is also not desirable to have ToR too specific on strategy. Fortunately, most professional organisations now mention the upper-limit of the available budget. Together with well elaborated selection criteria, such information almost always will have a positive influence on the quality of the proposals that will be received.

Commissioning the writing of ToR to specialists

Many ToR are written by specialists. These specialists often are available within the organisations commissioning the evaluation, in other cases they are found elsewhere. Commissioning the writing of ToR to third parties (consultants) does not guarantee good ToR. Assuming that the selected consultant has the required qualities and skills, he still will need information on background, motivation and purpose of the evaluation, prevailing conditions, etc.


In this short article we have mentioned only a few of the problems often observed when reading ToR and possible remedial actions. The main conclusion is that writing good ToR is a skill that requires expertise and time and much information of the principal as well. Yet, if a good quality evaluation is required, proper ToR are of great and often decisive importance.

Note: If you wish to receive a ?standard format? for ToR for an evaluation study, you may ask us to email it to you free of charge. However, please keep in mind that such a standard format is meant to assist you, it is not necessarily the optimal format for your specific needs. Especs also may assist you in drafting ToR against our standard rates.

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