Book Aid International has recently developed an organisational Theory of Change to explain what we want to change and how our work contributes to this. Our Head of Programmes Samantha Thomas-Chuula blogs on the process we undertook and how we will use the document to better plan and evaluate our work. Download the document here.
Like many of us, I am often asked what I do for a living. On offering up my job title and organisation, invariably the next question is, “what does Book Aid International do, exactly?” The length and detail of my answer will largely depend on where I am and how much time I have. If I’m on my way to work and my tube train has just arrived and the Central line is too noisy to be heard, the answer might go something like, “we are a book provision and library development charity working in sub-Saharan Africa” and that usually does the job. For a person who is really engaged with Africa and is interested in education initiatives then it’s more interesting for them if I explain a little more. With so many charities and development agencies in the world, it’s important to be able to explain what issue our organisation is addressing, the change we would like to see and how we see our role in this. Essentially, I would be sharing our Theory of Change – our explanation of how we contribute to positive change.
Thanks to funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery to help supported charities improve their impact assessment, we were able to get started on our Theory of Change journey. It was a whole team affair, including Board members and all staff. We were led by an experienced consultant who challenged us to think about the need for our work before thinking critically about our vision for the lives of our beneficiaries –the children and adults using public and community library services, the higher education learners and professionals, medical staff, prisoners and refugees who access our books.
Theory of Change is both a process and a document which helps organisations to really go back to basics and think about the change they work towards. Once this has been agreed upon, the organisation then considers how it contributes to this change and what other factors are working towards it. Our consultant used a helpful example to explain this: parents want to bring up their child to be happy, healthy and successful. But there are other factors influencing the child that parents cannot always control e.g. schooling, friends, media etc. So their Theory of Change would involve working out the things they can do to ensure their child grows up to be happy, healthy and successful, whilst understanding that other people and factors also have a part to play.
Engaging in the process of drafting the Theory of Change enables staff to reflect on the reason we exist in the first place. This is always useful for organisations which have been operating for a long time as we have. This focus on the need for our work helped us all to move away from thinking about the operational side of what we do and to really concentrate on the reasons why we do it.
We were then encouraged to consider our daily activities and how each of our roles contributes to our vision – whether it’s developing training materials to build local capacity, preparing a pallet of books for shipment to Africa or writing a funding proposal. We reminded ourselves of the crucial role of our in-country library partners and how important it is that we share a vision for the future of reading in Africa. We contribute towards this vision both together and separately from our partners but the end result we work towards is the same.
We now have a document which outlines, both in narrative form and a diagram, how we can contribute to change. This document takes the reader through the process of change – from the actions that we take through to the things these actions allow our partners to do and finally to the change that this makes for users of the libraries we support. By mapping out this process we can illustrate and evaluate how our model works. More importantly though we can use this process of mapping change to assess whether new projects or streams of work will really have the impact we seek. We can also map out who else is working towards the same vision and that helps us to establish and maintain good partnerships which will ultimately bring the joy of reading to more people in Africa.
In the programmes team, we can now visualise our beneficiaries more clearly and that is helping us to co-design projects with partners which are focused on the people and communities we want to support. For other teams the process was an opportunity to bond and understand better what other departments do. Going through this process also highlighted how we might improve our own monitoring and evaluation of the way the books we send are used. As a result we have now scoped out an improved system to monitor our book provision in the countries we support.
I can say with confidence that as an organisation it has made us more focused and more aware of what we are doing and why. Most importantly we are thinking more about the people we work to support in a new and exciting way. Developing our Theory of Change has been a thoroughly worthwhile exercise for us and the learning from it will assist us as we look forward and develop our new strategy for the next three years.