A critical examination of the practices of civil society organisations from the Global North and Global South: Understanding and Adapting an Organisational Theory of Change

How can the NGO PHASE update its central 'Theory of Change' to respond to the developments of the organisation and the communities they assist?

Practical Help Achieving Self-Empowerment (PHASE) is a group of organisations composed of PHASE  Worldwide, PHASE Nepal, and PHASE Austria. PHASE Worldwide (UK Registered Charity) was founded in 2005 to support PHASE Nepal’s (Nepali Non-Governmental Organisation/Community Based Organisation) programmes aimed at improving access to primary healthcare, education, and livelihoods in remote parts of Nepal. On establishment, an organisational Theory of Change (ToC) was created by key individuals in the partnership.

A ToC is essentially a comprehensive description of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It focuses on mapping out what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a programme or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how it leads to expected goals being achieved. It does this by identifying the desired long-term goals and examining these to identify all the conditions that must be in place.

The PHASE ToC is built on working with remote communities in Nepal, who because of a lack of healthcare, education, and livelihoods, are trapped in a cycle of poverty. The current ToC maps out PHASE’s process as follows: identify communities in discussion with beneficiaries, local, and national government; and apply a linear programme of projects to strengthen quality and access to primary healthcare, educational opportunities, and livelihoods. These projects comprise of providing courses to increase adult literacy, offering activities to support girls’ empowerment, setting up community-based centres for primary healthcare, and building agricultural extensions to increase the quality and quantity of food available, as well as other vocational trainings to increase income.

What did the project involve? 

This project was focused on addressing issues in PHASE’s organisational ToC. PHASE had considerably developed in its 15 years since inception, and the organisations felt that the original ToC did not reflect the way in which programmes and projects are now carried out, nor the relation with the communities that have evolved. Recently, people who have become involved in a specific component of our programmes (such as agriculture for example) might continue to collaborate with PHASE and access other projects. Indeed, in recent years, PHASE had focused on offering integrated programmes that seek to support communities and its members on a more holistic basis, aiming for sustained and comprehensive social change.

At the time of this project, the research team believed that ToC also did not reflect two other important evolutions in PHASE’s organisational outreach: firstly, their work in research which contributes to the implementation of evidence-based programmes, drawing from the empirical data that they generate with the communities; secondly, their work with communities towards increasing resilience to climate change and natural disasters.

As a consortium, they felt it was crucial they came together to discuss how they might be able to update their ToC in order to reflect the learnings that stem from 15 years of collaboration and sustained work in Nepal. They wanted all partners to be in the room to offer their critical understanding and contribution on how their ToC works and how it should be further developed. This enable them to co-produce an updated ToC which better served the organisations, the communities and the wider development sector. This took place over a one day facilitated workshop to discuss, adapt, and develop their organisational theory of change.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Tom Edwards (Director, PHASE Worldwide) was the director of PHASE worldwide from 2017-2012, before then working as the grants and trusts manager.
  • Jiban Karki (Executive Director, PHASE Nepal) is a global health researcher with over 15 years of experience in leading development organisations and managing projects in Nepal and has over 10 years of experience in academic research in South Asia.
  • Brita Pohl (Chair of Trustees, PHASE Austria) is a freelance translator and volunteer fundraiser and project manager for PHASE Austria and PHASE Nepal.
  • Dan Haines (Environmental History, University of Bristol) is a historian working on modern environmental history, focusing on South Asia. He has interests in spatial history, colonialism and decolonisation, international relations, and interdisciplinary links with political geography.
  • Rosie Westerveld (Management, University of Sheffield) is a multilingual consultant for civil society organisations and academic institutions in the fields of international development, gender and education, NGO partnership development and practices. She provides strategic, methodological, organisational and programmatic skills to support partners in research, advocacy, partnership development and project cycle implementation.

What were the results?

The outcome was a one-day meeting with the results of discussions contributing to a redesigned ToC for all organisations to embed in their work from late 2020.