Setting a higher bar: Sustained Impacts are about All of us
Global development aid has a problem which may already affect impact investing as well.
It is that we think it’s really all about us (individuals, wealthy donors and INGO implementers) not all of us (you, me, and project participants, their partners and governments). It’s also about us for a short time.
All too often, the measurable results we in global development aid and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funded projects that last 1-5 years track and report data for two reasons:
1) Donors have Compliance for grantees to meet (money spent, not lost, and results met by fixed deadlines of 1-5 years – look at some of the European Commission Contracting rules) and
2) Fund recipients and the participants they serve are accountable to ‘our’ donors and implementers who take what happened through their philanthropic grants as ‘their’ results.
Both can skew how sustainably we get to create impacts. An example of such strictures on sustainability from USAID. As respected CGDev Elliot and Dunning researchers found in 2016 when assessing the ‘US Feed the Future Initiative: A New Approach to Food Security?‘ the $10.15 billion leveraged $20 billion from other funders for disbursement over three years (2013-16). “We are concerned that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable…. Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained. For example, a common response to low productivity is to subsidize or facilitate access to improved inputs… it can deliver a quick payoff… however, if the subsidies become too expensive and are eliminated or reduced, fertilizer use and yields often fall…..
With so much focus on reporting early and often about the progress in implementing the initiative, there is a risk that it increases the pressure to disburse quickly and in ways that may not produce sustainable results. For example, for 2014, Feed the Future reports that nearly 7 million farmers applied “improved technologies or management practices as a result of U.S. Government assistance,” but only 1,300 received “long-term agricultural sector productivity.” Are the millions of others that are using improved inputs or management practices because of subsidies likely to have these practices sustained? And how likely are they to continue using improved practices once the project ends?”
3) Impact investors stick to the same two paths-to-results and add a new objective: market-competitive financial returns. They also need to show short-term results to their investors, albeit with social, environmental and governance results like non-profits (future blog).
4) Altruists create things we want ‘beneficiaries’ (our participants) to have. For instance a plethora of apps for refugees cropped up in recent years, over 5,000 it is estimated, which can be appropriate, nor not so helpful. Much like #2 above, ‘we’re’ helping ‘them’ but again, it seems to be a ‘give a man a fish’… and my fish is cool sort of solution… but do our participants want/ need this?
How often is our work-for-change mostly about us/by us/ for us... when ideally it is mostly about ‘them’ (OK, given human self-interest, shouldn’t changes we want at least be about all of us?).
All too often we want to be the solution but really, our ‘grassroots’ clients who are our true customers need to generate their own solution. Best if we listen and we design for long-term sustainability together?
As the Brilliant Sidekick Manifesto stated in two of its ten steps:
a) “I will step out of the spotlight: Sustainable solutions to poverty come from within are bottom-up, and flow from local leaders who are taking the risks of holding their politicians accountable and challenging the status quo.”
b) “I will read “To Hell with Good Intentions” again and again: Politicians, celebrities and billionaire philanthropists will tell me that I can be a hero. I cannot. The poor are not powerless or waiting to be saved. Illich will check my delusions of grandeur.”
We have examples of where we have stepped away and participants had to fend for themselves. At Valuing Voices, we’ve done post project-exit evaluations 2-15 years afterward. What did participants value so much that they sustained it themselves (all about them, literally)? These Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations (SEIE) also give us indications of Sustained ROI (Sustained Return on Investment (SusROI) is a key missing metric. As respected evaluator Ricardo Wilson-Grau said in an email, “I think calculating cost-effectiveness of an intervention’s outcomes would be a wonderful challenge for a financial officer searching for new challenges — if not a Nobel prize in economics!”)
Most of these evaluations are pretty bad news mixed with some good news about what folks could sustain after we left, couldn’t and why not. (These are the ones folks expect to have great results, otherwise they wouldn’t share them!) While most clients are understandably interested in what of ‘theirs’ was still standing, and it was interesting disentangling where the results were attributable by implementation or design or partnership flaws or something else, what was mesmerizing was what came from ‘them’.
The key is looking beyond ‘unexpected’ results to look at emerging impacts that are about ‘them’ (aka what we didn’t expect that was a direct result of our project, e.g. spare parts were no longer available to fix the water well pump once we left or a drought rehabilitation water project that decreased violence against women), to what emerging results are attributable not to use but only to our participants and partners who took over after our projects closed. One example is a Nepalese project ended yet the credit groups of empowered women spawned groups of support groups for battered women. Another is a child maternal health project changed how it worked as women reverted to birthing at home after NGOs left; community leaders punished both parents with incarceration in the health clinic for a week if they didn’t given birth there (wow did that work to sustain behavior change of both parents!).
Many of us at Valuing Voices are shocked that funders don’t seem that interested in this, as this is where they not only take over (viz picture, sustaining the project themselves), but they are making it theirs, not ours. Imagine assuming the point of development is to BE SUSTAINABLE.
Source: Community Life Competence
Our participants and national stakeholder partners are our true clients, yet… Feedback Labs tell us Americans alone gave $358 billion to charities (equivalent to the 2014 GDP of 20 countries) – in 2014 but how much of this was determined by what ‘beneficiaries’ want? Josh Woodard, a development expert, suggests a vouchers approach where our true clients, our participants, who would “purchase services from those competing organizations… [such an] approach to development would enable us all to see what services people actually value and want. And when we asked ourselves what our clients want, we would really mean the individuals in the communities we are in the business of working with and serving. Otherwise we’d be out of business pretty quickly.”
This opens the door to client feedback – imagine if participants could use social media to rate the sustained impacts on them of the projects they benefited from? A customer support expert wrote in Forbes, “Today, every customer has, or feels she has, a vote in how companies do business and treat customers. This is part of a new set of expectations among customers today that will only grow ... you can’t control product ratings, product discussions or much else in the way of reviews, except by providing the best customer experience possible and by being proactive in responding to negative trends that come to the surface in your reviews and ratings stronger.”
So how well are we working with our participants for ‘development’ to be about them?
What do you think?
Impact Investing – International Development’s New Holy Grail?
There are so many things I love about the private sector such as Forbes 18 Dec Quote of the Day: “You’re going to be wrong a fair amount of times. So the issue is, how do you be wrong well?” asked Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associate. This is a key issue for impact investors and international ‘developers’ alike.
International development suffers from the myth that failure must be downplayed. Too often only success is highlighted, whereas project shortcomings are framed as: “less successful” “numerous issues affected a less optimal…” Yet by downplaying the less great (Aka awful) results we miss vital learning that private sector expects, learns from and integrates toward the greater success. Why? Many in foreign aid believe (rightly?) such admissions might endanger winning more funding for more projects. Even as recently as 2014, U.S. foreign aid industry websites such as DevEx are still posting: “One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail” .
Admitting failure, posting failure reports are awfully rare in international development, but how bad is it? The Asian Development Bank wrote in a large overview of the sustainability of post-project results, “Some early evidence suggests that as many as 40% of all new activities are not sustained beyond the first few years after disbursement of external funding” . A 2017 Cambridge University study found that “using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment” . Even when they do start, complete, and even have salutary results at the end of the project, Valuing Voices research shows quick declines toward failures in as little as two years post exit, such as these post-project results at the AEA 2017 conference. The foreign aid industry is so focused on showing results while conditions are (relatively) conducive, that far fewer than 1% of all projects are evaluated for what was still standing in as little as two years after project closeout, and those are mostly those projects expected to be successful. Sustainable, long-term results suffer from what CGDev researchers are concerned “that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable….Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained” . Luckily there’s a place to go. DevEx reminds us that “Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed,” hence my love of the private sector’s admitting, learning and improving that ‘aid’ needs .
As a former investment banker (Solomon Brothers) and management consultant (Price Waterhouse & Coopers and Lybrand), I know that the corporates care for results, and do not shy away from pulling money from where things don’t work and put it where they do. 30 years in international development showed me that rigid bureaucracies and fixed ‘project cycles’ and an industry focused on ‘getting money out the door’ lead to a focus on accounting for all funds, but not for changing lives over the long term. Virtually no one calculates return on (our) investment compared to the cost of projects, especially including the value of what projects generate and participants can sustain.
I am quite fervently hoping Impact Investors focused on financial ROI to firms and investors as well as Social Return on Investment will step in, fund gathering and learning from the whole range of ‘returns’. Will they share both financial profits/ losses and feedback from the whole social ‘value chain’ of stakeholders of those involved on what succeeds and fails? Will investors learn from national partners and participants on what should be done better? If yes, all of us will win. I am heartened by cautiously optimistic statements such as Next Billion’s “a core characteristic and challenge of impact investing is the measurement and management of social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Development cooperation and impact investing communities can build on their respective experience in results measurement and learn from and with each other” . We can IF we are going to the same place.
From my early look at impact investing, it is a ‘game changer’ with $250 billion in assets looking for a profitable home . UBS Asset Manager Baldinger says “In the past you sold products to your client, now you empower your client to create a desired impact. As an industry, we’ve had to rethink everything we do — impact and sustainability is the Silicon Valley of finance and we want to be the Google” . These are happy words to someone focused on sustained (and emerging) impacts but among impact investors, so far, ‘impact’ seems to be thrown about as specifically as ‘results’, and GIIN ‘sustainability’ metrics are so wide ranging as to illuminate less quality than quantity. So far, much of their metrics look more like outputs relevant to companies (‘clients served’, ‘new investment capital’) that results of SROI. While there is something to be said about measures of ‘organizations trained’, ‘poverty assessments’ done, at least as a start, yet does ‘gross profit’ indicate that corner of the world is better off (and does this measure the investment into the enterprise, or is this of the investment fund itself)? Does ‘communities served’ and ‘social impact objectives’ illuminate the quality of the impact on lives changed? Is anyone asking how long-lasting, and sustained these investments, measuring what I call SUStained Return on Investment (SUSROI), will be after these investors leave (which is what I suspect most investment participants and millennial investors think they’re buying)?
This is the start of a series of blogs exploring how we who care about generating and evaluating sustained impacts can learn from, inform, (gasp) shape impact investing’s gargantuan footprint in international development. Powerhouses such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Soros are looking, teaching, investing, and all public and private equity as well as a whole range of other investors now invest in this new hybrid . Who else is? What can we learn to make the world better? What do you think: Is impact investing development’s holy grail?
 Petruney, T. (2014, December 12). Facing global development’s fear of failure. Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/facing-global-development-s-fear-of-failure-85078
 Asian Development Bank. (2010, October 31). Post-Completion Sustainability of Asian Development Bank-Assisted Projects. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/documents/post-completion-sustainability-asian-development-bank-assisted-projects
 Williams, M. J. (2017). The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice? American Political Science Review, 111(4). Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/political-economy-of-unfinished-development-projects-corruption-clientelism-or-collective-choice/1351C9A6EB64B39B0D3A2B0A2D748412
 Elliott, K. A., & Dunning, C. (2016, March 1). Assessing the US Feed the Future Initiative: A New Approach to Food Security? Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/publication/assessing-us-feed-future-initiative-new-approach-food-security
 Next Billion. (2017, November). Financing Global Development – Leveraging Impact Investing for the SDGs. Retrieved from https://nextbillion.net/calendar/financing-global-development-leveraging-impact-investing-sdgs/
 Kennedy, E. (2017, December 18). Impact investing: A $250 billion game-changer for finance. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/27/investing/impact-investing-wall-street-banks-asset-managers/index.html
 Ford Foundation. (2017, April 5). Ford Foundation commits $1 billion from endowment to mission-related investments. Retrieved from https://www.fordfoundation.org/the-latest/news/ford-foundation-commits-1-billion-from-endowment-to-mission-related-investments/
 Karabell, S. (2013, August 14). Impact Investing, Soros-Style. Retrieved from https://knowledge.insead.edu/responsibility/impact-investing-soros-style-2576
Leading in Challenging Times:
Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIEs)
Some American organizations are retrenching, focusing more attention on domestic rather than international programming. Some are pulling back from critique of international development to informing legislators of its benefits; the Center for Global Development’s changed ‘Rethinking US Development Policy’ blog to only “US Development Policy“. UN’s Refugee Agency questions whether to challenge Washington’s tough line on refugees from countries such as Syria, or should it stay quiet in the hopes of protecting its funding ?”
Reticence is understandable in this ‘climate’, so to speak, but fear does not change the world, leadership does. Envisioning and creating the world we want gets us there.
There may be no better time to build the evidence base on what works in sustainable development as these are low cost investments if we use national staff and focus research well. We have seen this in the fewer than 1% of all projects that have been evaluated post-closeout for sustainability . At the very least, we can learn what we should do differently in the next design, to fully foster sustainability, once more funding emerges. Many are interested in great results. Hundreds of ‘impact evaluations’ are happening on aid effectiveness; our industry wants to learn what works and what we could do better.
Our SEIE work goes beyond current understanding of ‘impact’ to see what projects our partners and participants can self-sustain ex-post for years to come which is an excellent investment in proving cost-effectiveness. While some governments’ investments can diminish in the short term, national governments, and other funders such as a range of international bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations corporate social responsibility and impact investors do want to invest in provably “sustainable” development .
Why should we invest in SEIEs?
- Hundreds of thousands of projects are still being implemented.
- Millions of participants are still hoping what we are doing together will be sustainable.
- Billions of dollars, euros, kwacha, pesos, rupees are being spent on new projects that need to be designed and implemented for future sustainability.
Implementing organizations could be fearful to see what remains once funding and technical assistance are withdrawn, but such a view not only robs our industry of exciting lessons on what did change and was so valued that it was sustained, but also what to not do again. Not returning post-project also short-changes our participants. In our SEIEs, we have found participants and partners creating new ways to carry on, innovating beyond what we could imagine during our assistance.
We also need to start now to design and implement for sustainability. doing SEIEs, we can start to understand the ‘drivers’ behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) results with countries tracking some 120 indicators across 17 goals. Currently countries are tracking up to 230 indicators across the 17 Goals . But while such monitoring shows ‘GDP has increased or ‘under-nourishment has decreased’, there is little or no information on what has caused it. Yet doing and SEIE on a large donor-funded programme, we can explore what elements made projects sustainable and how to do more (or less) there and elsewhere. Such sentinel site support for learning about sustained and emerging impacts is key to understand some of the why, for example, did income or health improve.
Dare to lead, especially in these challenging times. We know of organizations that are doing these evaluations internally, others are publishing them on their sites. Leadership happens at all levels, from internal, technical to managerial and administrative work to external evaluators and consultants as well as public pressure.
How can you foster sustained impact?
- You can advocate for such evaluations
- You can share the SEIE guidance, below, and start to design and implement, monitor and evaluate sustainably in all projects/ proposals you are designing now.
- You can see if your organization has done any post-project sustainability evaluations and we can post them on Valuing Voices’ repository, celebrating your organization.
We can help you learn how to do these. Our partner, Better Evaluation, just published our Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation as a ‘new’ evaluation ‘theme.’
Guidance there shows you :
1. What is SEIE?
2. Why do SEIE?
3. When to do SEIE?
4. Who should be engaged in the evaluation process?
5. What definitions and methods can be used to do an SEIE?
SEIEs will grow as will examples, discussions, and joy as embracing sustainability sprouts, and sends us progressing in yet-unforeseen ways! We are excited to be in the final stages of receiving a research grant to further guide SEIEs. We will share that news in our next blog.
We want to learn from you:
- What do you think needs to be in place for funders to move beyond the funding cycle and do an SEIE?
- What would help to make this type of evaluation more widely undertaken?
- If you have done a post-project evaluation, how did you do it? What were some of the barriers you faced and resources you were able to draw on to overcome them?
How can we lead together to Value the Voices of those we serve!?
(Reposted from https://medium.com/@WhatWeValue/leading-in-challenging-times-sustained-and-emerging-impacts-evaluation-seies-617b33bf4d27#.ec7fcg4ty)
 Foulkes, I. (2017, February 27). Is there a US diplomacy vacuum at the UN in Geneva? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39080204
 Cekan, J. (2015, March 13). When Funders Move On. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/when_funders_move_on
 UN DESA. (2011, March 2). Lasting impact of sustainable development. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/sustainable/sustainable-development.html
 UN Statistics Division. SDG Indicators: Global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved March, 2017, from https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/indicators/indicators-list/
 Cekan, J., Zivetz, L., & P, R. (2016). Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIE). Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/themes/SEIE