For all the recent negative publicity, the international aid sector has often led the way in thinking and practice on impact measurement. So what is the overseas sector doing today that UK-focused NGOs may well be doing tomorrow? Here are a few emerging themes.

Gaining full value from theories of change

There is growing recognition in the sector that theories of change work best when used as a prompt for critical reflection, as well as to describe how programmes are intended to work. Used in this way, theories of change become a way of thinking, not just an exercise to go through. Success depends on an ‘open, learning climate’ where people are encouraged to challenge their own and others’ assumptions and where the search is always on for better ways of doing things. Fast gaining ground in the sector, ‘adaptive management’ is a logical extension of this approach: this keeps the Theory of Change central but provides for rapid feedback, learning and adjustment and accepts that, given the uncertainty and complexity of development projects, things don’t always turn out as you expect.

Being transparent about evidence

DFID was an early adopter of the evidence transparency framework developed by the Institute for Government and partners. This framework allows Government departments to be rated – and to rate themselves – based on how transparent they are about the evidence used at every stage of policy-making, from problem diagnosis through to implementation and evaluation. This approach may well have repercussions for public sector dealings with NGOs.

Delving into the evidence

Increasingly evaluators of development projects are asking not ‘Does it work?’ but ‘Who does it work for, in what circumstances and why?’ Known as ‘realist evaluation’, this approach looks beyond the headlines to try and understand what past experiences, cultural norms or other factors influence how people respond in a given situation. In the right setting this approach can help to probe causation where randomised control trials – typically regarded as the evidence ‘gold standard’ – aren’t an option. Allied with the onward drive of payment by results, a common message from the international development ‘crystal ball’ is the need to take evidence seriously: unpacking it, learning from it and making changes in the light of it. I think many of us in the UK charity and social enterprise sector would acknowledge this is an area where we still have some way to go.

Rosie Chadwick is an Eastside Primetimers member (consultant). Please contact us on 020 7250 8334 or email for a conversation with our consultants about how we can help you better manage, measure and demonstrate your impact.

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