Tag Archives: Samantha Thomas-Chuula

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Developing Book Aid International’s Theory of Change

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.

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Mapping how our roles contribute to impact

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.

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Our Theory of Change diagram

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.

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Getting started with Open Doors in Zimbabwe

Together with our partners in Zimbabwe, we are currently working to establish five new Children’s Corners in public libraries as part of our Open Doors programme. Recently our Head of Programmes travelled to Zimbabwe to visit the libraries and conduct our baseline assessments. Here’s Samantha’s account of her trip.

The purpose of the trip was to conduct baseline surveys of the selected libraries which will be included in the Zimbabwe phase of our Open Doors Children’s Corners programme. The programme aims to engage children in reading by providing child-friendly spaces in public libraries where they can read, play and learn. Doing baselines surveys is really a way of measuring activities in the library now so that when we’ve completed the project we’ll be able to tell what impact the new Children’s Corners are having.

I visited each site and conducted a questionnaire gathering details about the library – how it operates currently, how the children use it and the current skills of the librarians. It was also a great opportunity to share the concept of the Open Doors programme with the librarians, get them excited about the project and answer their questions. I also take photos of the library spaces so we can monitor the progress of the project against this starting point.

The libraries I visited were generally large, airy, purpose-built buildings, largely built in the 1960s and all in need of upgrading. While they all had designated spaces for children, a lack of funding has meant that the spaces are all in need of some TLC. The furniture is old and not always suitable for children and many of the libraries have an outdated collection of books for children. Unfortunately when I visited, there were not many children using the spaces – exactly what we hope to fix through the Open Doors programme.

Although many of the librarians I met are very passionate about engaging children in reading, very few of them have had training in working with children and encouraging them to read. The library spaces are crying out for the energy and enthusiasm that children can bring and there was a real desire in the librarians to transform their spaces and improve their own skills so they can help to inspire the next generation of readers in Zimbabwe.

Our Open Doors programme offers the library network in Zimbabwe an opportunity to focus on their young users. With training for the librarians, carefully selected, brand new children’s book donations as well as a chance to spruce up the spaces with a refurbishment grant – these libraries will be transformed after this intervention! We hope to see a real revival in children’s interest in reading and we hope that the new spaces, combined with brand new books and librarian training will act as a powerful and winning combination to strengthen the reading culture there.

The most memorable experience was seeing a girl writing in the library. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me she was copying the story from the library book because she could not afford membership which would have allowed her to borrow it. This was the best way to have her own copy of the books, which she could read at home and read to and with her siblings. I was moved by her determination to overcome this common financial obstacle – such was her love of reading. It’s children like this who will really benefit from the new Children’s Corners. In a beautifully decorated, child-friendly space with reading activities to participate in and lots of new and exciting children’s books, she will be able to inspire her siblings and grow their love of reading too.

 

The training has already taken place for the librarians from the five libraries and now the next stage is the refurbishment. Once the spaces are bright, vibrant and child-friendly, they can be filled with 2,500 brand new books from the UK (these have already been shipped) as well as locally published books. It feels like a really exciting time for libraries in Zimbabwe and we look forward to bringing you updates on these Children’s Corners throughout the year.

This project in Zimbabwe is generously supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

You can find out more about our Open Doors programme here and watch a short film about Children’s Corners in Malawi here