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Creating positive change

We want to see communities and individuals transformed and flourishing. But how can we help bring this about? What will it look like? And how can we assess whether or not we are making progress towards this goal?

2016 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Impact and change – Footsteps 100

How positive change happens and how best to measure it

How do we change things for the better? At some point we have probably all asked ourselves that question. We want to see communities and individuals transformed and flourishing. But how can we help bring this about? What will it look like? And how can we assess whether or not we are making progress towards this goal?  

Below are some of the things that can help us bring about real and positive change. 

Understanding the need 

We may think we have identified a need in the community we are living or working in. For example, we may notice that children are not attending school. We may think that more teachers or better school facilities would make a difference. But perhaps the lack of these things is not the main reason behind the problem. It may be that children are falling sick because of a lack of clean water, and so are absent from school. Or perhaps families have no money to send their children to school because their crops are failing. 

By spending time talking with community members about their situation, we can understand what is really at the root of the problem. We can also find out what they see as their most urgent needs. 

Community participation

Many development projects have failed because the community was not involved in them. To bring about positive change that will last, it is important to include the community at every stage of the process. 

As well as identifying their needs, it is important for community members to think about their own capacities and resources to address the problems they face. They may contribute the labour or resources needed, for example. Community members should also be involved in planning the project, and in monitoring and reviewing progress. It is vital to encourage their honest feedback throughout. We need to treat community members with dignity and be accountable to them for the work we do. 

Planning well

Once we know what needs to be changed, it can be tempting to rush ahead and start work. However, we need to take time to think about how exactly to bring about the changes we want to see. Change is always messy and complicated, but good planning means we are likely to experience fewer problems. 

There are many guides available to help with the details of designing a project (see Resources page for details of ROOTS 5: Project cycle management). 

We should consider who will be affected by our project, and who could influence it – we may need to gain their participation or support. We also need to think about any risks that the project may involve and how we can minimise these. 

Of course, a project will usually cost money – and so we need to work out a budget. Monitoring whether a project is on track financially is essential for its success and for being accountable with our funds. 

The project cycle diagram

Monitoring and evaluating our work

It is vital that we monitor and evaluate our projects and programmes. We need to make a monitoring and evaluation plan while we are still designing the project. 

Monitoring is the ongoing process of gathering information throughout a project. It allows us to identify any problems early on, providing us with an opportunity to make any changes required. It also shows us how much progress we are making towards our goals. It answers the question, ‘How well are we doing?’ 

Evaluation is carried out at the end of a project or programme, but sometimes also mid-way through. This is how we analyse the changes our work has created and how likely they are to last. Evaluation answers the question, ‘What difference have we made?’ 

We are often working in challenging situations, and it is always hard to get things completely right first time. By reflecting on our actions, we can celebrate and build on what has worked well and learn from what has gone less well. This will allow us (and others) to learn from our experience. 

Unintended impacts

Of course, our project may create some unexpected changes. Not all of these may be positive. For example, we may have held community meetings during the project where people have become angry. This may have stirred up old areas of conflict within the community. We should monitor and evaluate our project carefully for unintended impacts so that we can learn important lessons for the future. We can also celebrate and learn from unexpected positive impacts. For instance, coming together to advocate about an issue may help to bring unity to a community, whether or not there is a change in the problem itself. 

Thinking about the whole person

It can be easy to consider a community from just one point of view – for example, looking only at their material needs. But each community and individual is so much more complex than this. At Tearfund, we see poverty as more than the lack of material necessities. We believe that real and lasting change involves restoring our relationships with God, with each other and with the environment. We rely on God’s guidance and power to transform the lives of individuals and communities. 

At Tearfund, we are developing a tool to measure change across the following areas:

  • participation and influence
  • social connections
  • personal relationships
  • living faith
  • emotional and mental health
  • physical health
  • stewardship of the environment
  • material assets and resources
  • capabilities. 

We can measure these things before, during and after a project to see what changes our work is helping to bring about. 

Finishing well

At the end of a project, it is important to celebrate its success. Celebration is a way of recognising all that people have contributed to the project. For example, if we have built a new grain bank in our community, we could hold an official opening ceremony and invite all who were involved. Holding a celebration can inspire people to take part in future development projects, leading to further positive change. 

Based on information from ROOTS 5: Project cycle management. See Resources page for information on how to order or download this guide. 

Illustration from Project/programme monitoring and evaluation (M&E) guide, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Illustration from Project/programme monitoring and evaluation (M&E) guide, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

What is an indicator?

Indicators help us answer the question, ‘How do we know when we have got there?’ They provide evidence or signs that a change has taken place.

Quantitative indicators show us the scale of change. They can be measured or counted – for example, number of children in school or average income. 

Qualitative indicators measure the quality and depth of change. They are concerned with things that cannot be seen and are hard to count, such as attitudes, feelings, perceptions and behaviours. 

Thinking about indicators when planning a project can help us set targets for our work. 

Case study: Monitoring cash grants in Iraq

In summer 2014, large numbers of people fled into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to escape conflict. As winter approached, these families faced many difficulties. 

Tearfund staff assessed people’s needs and found that their top concern was shelter, followed by lack of heating, fuel and warm clothing. It was possible and safe to buy these items locally. The team carried out a survey and discovered that people would find cash the most helpful kind of assistance. They therefore decided to give emergency cash grants to the displaced families. This would allow each family to meet their most urgent needs. 

In the planning stages, Tearfund’s team held group meetings with community leaders and vulnerable groups, such as older people. They asked the elderly people whether they could travel to the locations where the cash would be given out. The elderly members of the group assured them this would be fine. 

The team monitored the project carefully. When they gave out the grants, they carried out a survey to check how satisfied people were. Through this, they discovered that the elderly people had struggled to get to the chosen locations after all. 

The team realised they would need to redesign the project before continuing. They decided that in the future they would visit elderly people in their homes to give them their cash grants. This worked much better. Tearfund partner PAG is mobilising the church to bring transformation in Uganda. Illustration from Project/programme monitoring and evaluation (M&E) guide, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

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