Writing a Terms of Reference

The Terms of Reference (ToR) is the document that serves as the basis of a contractual relationship between the commissioner of a program and the team(s) responsible for carrying out the work. It’s where the mission and scope are outlined; where the issues to be addressed and the desired outputs and outcomes are defined; and where timeframes, key meetings, resources and reporting guidelines are detailed.  As such, it’s a crucial opportunity to set out expectations for responsive feedback from the very beginning. 

What to do:

Prioritize projects in which causation or context are poorly understood.

  • Make the Terms of Reference no more prescriptive than necessary. A ToR should set minimum necessary ‘guardrails’ on a project, but do not over-specify activities beyond this.

Choose grantees for their capacity to evolve.

  • Make it clear in Requests for Proposal (RFP)/ Requests for Application (RFA) that adaptation planning will be a factor in selection. Specify points to be scored for credible plans for ongoing learning and adaptation.
  • Ask for evidence of past learning and adaptation, including systemic use of learning from evidence to adapt work. Score staff on how well they have worked adaptively in the past, potentially prioritizing this over years of experience.

Define goals but leave room to flex activities.

  • Define what the project must achieve to be considered a success. Distinguish these non negotiable outcomes from negotiable aspects of the project that could be left to the grantee’s discretion.
  • Prescribe final outcomes but leave activities and intermediate outcomes as flexible as possible.
  • Instead of a single final outcome, consider a range of acceptable outcomes.

Build flexible budgets that demand accountability, not predictability

  • Include an inception or design phase to test approaches after which budgets will be set.
  • Ring-fence time and budget for learning as an explicit part of a program.