I began a new journey just over two years ago (May, 2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:
- During those two years, I’ve been climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers. I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
- Alongside descriptions of those climbs, I’ve been sharing what it was like working in international development during the MDG era: as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So, in each article in this series, I am writing about climbing each of those mountains and, each time, I reflect a bit on the journey since I began to work in social justice, nearly 34 years ago: on development, human rights, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
In 2009 Jean and I moved to Sydney, where I took up a new role as International Program Director for ChildFund Australia. On my way towards Sydney, I was thinking a lot about how to build a great program, and how I would approach building a strong team with clarity, trust, and inspiration. Last time I described the role and staffing and structural iterations of the International Program Team there.
This time, I want to begin to unpack the program approach that we put in place, building on what was already there, and on the lessons I had learned in the previous 25 years.
Owl’s Head (4025ft, 1227m) is described by many hikers as uninteresting, boring, and challenging – something that “should not be left to the end” of the 48 peaks. I guess that’s because climbers want to finish their long voyage up so many great mountains in a blaze of glory, but they find Owl’s Head to be a letdown after the challenges and thrills of the other 47 4000-footers.
I climbed Owl’s Head on 26 July, 2017, and enjoyed every minute of it!
Yes, it’s long and mostly in the forest. Yes, getting up the rock slide on the western side of Owl’s Head is tough going. Yes, there are several river crossings which can be problematic when the water’s high. And, yes, it’s not a ridge walk, so the views are (mostly) obstructed. But on this late-July day, the walking was fantastic, the river crossings were nerve-wracking but doable, and the views going up (and coming down) the rock slide, looking across at Franconia Ridge, were fantastic.
I left Durham at about 6am, getting an early start because my calculations were that the ascent would be over 6 hours, just getting to the top. Figuring in a descent of 4 hours, at least, made me want to get walking as soon as possible. As has been my normal routine these days, I stopped in Tilton for coffee, and I bought a sandwich for lunch in Lincoln, very near the trailhead.
I had brought sandals to carry with me for the river crossings, just in case.
After parking at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, I started the hike at 8:10am.
It was a beautiful, cool, sunny day. Just beyond the Visitor Center, two trails head up the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River: the Pemi East Side Trail and the Lincoln Woods Trail. To get to the Lincoln Woods Trail, which I would take, I crossed a suspension bridge and took a right turn to head north:
The Lincoln Woods Trail runs along an old forest railway, and is wide and straight for over two miles. Dappled, high forest, just gorgeous, crisp day. Nervous about how long I thought it would take me to reach Owl’s Head, and return, I flew up this first easy part, almost trotting up the gentle incline:
Old railway ties can be seen in the image, above. Here is an image of one of the nails in a tie:
There were a few other hikers heading up the Lincoln Woods Trail along with me, more than I expected on a summer Wednesday, but it wasn’t crowded. I reached the junction with the Osseo Trail at 8:33am, and Black Point Trail at 8:53am:
Just before 9am, I arrived at the junction with Franconia Brook Trail. So it had taken me about 50 minutes to walk up the 2.6 miles from the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center. It had been gently up hill the whole way so far.
Here, just after a small footbridge over Franconia Brook, I would turn left, up the Franconia Brook Trail:
(A few weeks later I would come to this junction once again, but would continue straight on the Bondcliff Trail.)
Franconia Brook Trail was a real trail, at least at the beginning, but soon, as I headed north up the Franconia Brook, there were long sections that must have also been old railway – straight, and wide, and gradually uphill. Pleasant walking! I thought that coming down would be even faster.
From here, the water level in Franconia Brook didn’t look too high:
I hiked up Franconia Brook Trail, 1.7 miles, and reached the junction with Lincoln Brook Trail at 9:33am. I was still making very good time – 1.7 miles in about 30 minutes. But I didn’t feel that I was rushing, it was very nice hiking through the woods on the wide trail!
Here I would swing west to walk around Owl’s Head in a clockwise sense, following (and repeatedly crossing) the Lincoln Brook until reaching Owl’s Head Path:
I would cross Franconia Brook four times going up the west side of Owl’s Head, and four times coming back down, retracing my steps. The first crossing, at 9:44am, was the most difficult, and I almost gave my boots a good bath that time. It was a little dicey…
Of course, as I climbed up the valley, the Brook became smaller as I walked above different streams that were feeding into it. So the first (and last, when returning) crossing had the most water.
The trail was less maintained here, certainly not an old forest railway, though I did see two trail crews working on it that day.
I reached the turnoff for Owl’s Head Path at 11:08am. I had become nervous that I had passed it, feeling that I should have reached the turnoff some time before, and there were no signs. By the time I reached the cairns marking the turnoff I was quite anxious and was thinking vaguely about turning back. But, luckily, as I was approaching the cairns that can be seen in the next image, a young woman came down from having gone up Owl’s Head, and she confirmed that I had reached the junction!
So it had taken me nearly an hour and a half to walk Lincoln Brook Trail, from Franconia Brook Trail to Owl’s Head Path, including four stream crossings. Since Owl’s Head Path was supposed to be quite steep for some time, up a rock slide, I decided to leave some weight here at the bottom; so I took a quart of water and my sandals out of my pack and hid them at the junction.
I started up Owl’s Head at 11:17am, a bit lighter, after having a snack. Soon I reached the famous rock slide, which was very steep, indeed. Mostly gravel, so lots of sliding downward which made it heavy going.
It was slippery and challenging, and did I mention that it was very steep? Another young person came down and we crossed paths; she was very unhappy and had turned back before reaching the summit. It was too dangerous and she was giving up, and was vocal about how unpleasant it was. This would have been summit number 29 for her, but when carrying a full pack it wasn’t possible. It was very heavy going, relentless and challenging!
But the views from the rock slide were fantastic, looking back towards Franconia Ridge I could see all four of the 4000-footers there: Flume, Liberty, Lincoln and Lafayette. The light was still good, not yet noon, so the sun shined on the ridge from the east:
Here is a video of that view from the rock slide, looking over to Franconia Ridge:
The White Mountain Guide indicates that the top of Owl’s Head is not very accessible, and that the end of Owl’s Head Path, which is just short of the actual summit, qualifies as reaching the top. Apparently, at least when my edition of the Guide was published, reaching the actual summit involved a fair amount of bush-whacking.
Owl’s Head Path began to flatten out at about 12:09pm, and I reached what (I think) was the former end of the Path at about 12:15pm.
Here I was able to turn left, to the north, and there was a path heading towards the actual summit – not a very wide path, switching back and forth a lot, but certainly not bush-whacking.
I got to the actual top at about 12:30pm, and had lunch. Though I had seen a few other climbers after I passed the discouraged young woman, I had the summit to myself for lunch – it was very pleasant!
I had really really enjoyed the walk so far… maybe partly because expectations had been so low?
I left the summit, after a nice lunch, still wet with sweat, at about 12:45pm. I could see Franconia Ridge to the west, through the forest:
And there were some views to the east, towards the Bonds, but the Owl’s Head ridge was more forested that way, so no photos were possible. I got back to the top of Owl’s Head Path at about 1pm, and to the beginning of the rock slide about 20 minutes later. I dropped down the slide, taking care and many photos, reaching the junction with Lincoln Woods Trail at about 2pm. So, about an hour to descend carefully.
The walk back down Lincoln Woods Trail was pleasant:
Recrossing Lincoln Brook four times – simpler this time – and passing the trail-maintenance crews again, I got back to the junction with Franconia Brook Trail at about 3:36pm. Here I turned south and walked back down that old railway line:
There was a bit of old railway hardware along the side of the trail:
For much of this section, there were a few mosquitoes, but the walking was pleasant, on a soft bed of pine needles:
I passed a young woman resting on the side of the trail, with a very full pack. “You’re carrying a lot!” I said, and she replied: “I’m ready to let it go!” in a resigned tone of voice…
Ups and down … mostly downward gently. Long and level and wide. I reached the junction with Lincoln Woods Trail at about 4:11pm, and the Trail got even wider and straighter and easier. Funnily enough, there is a section of measured length here, which (of course) I had passed on the way up: 200 yards. The idea is to measure how many paces it took. On the way up, I counted 41 (double) paces, and 44 on the way back. So I was walking with shorter paces on the way down!
I reached the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, and my car, at about 5:15pm. It had taken me almost 9 hours to climb Owl’s Head, which was substantially less than I had calculated: from the White Mountain Guide, just the ascent, walking up, should have been about 6 1/2 hours.
But it was a great hike on a wonderful day. I enjoyed every minute of it!
As I arrived in Sydney to take up the newly-created position of International Program Director, one of my biggest priorities was to clarify our program approach. This would involve lots of internal discussion, research and reflection, and I was determined to bring to this task the lessons I had learned in the previous 25 years of working in the sector (and described in the articles in this series!)
I understood that our program approach needed to be built on a clear understanding of what we were going to achieve, and why. After completing the staffing of the first iteration of the International Program Team in Sydney, getting to know our programs in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, and settling in with other Sydney-based senior managers and our board, I got going!
I had first heard of the concept of “Theory of Change” when I asked Alan Fowler to critique an early draft of the UUSC Strategic Plan in 2005. He had, quite rightly, pointed out that the draft Strategy was good, but that it didn’t really clarify why we wanted to do what we were describing: how did we understand the links between our actions and our vision and mission?
Reflecting on Alan’s observation, I understood that we should put together a clear statement of causality, linking our actions with the impact we sought in the world. So we did that, and ended up with a very important statement that really helped UUSC be clear about things:
Human rights and social justice have never advanced without struggle. It is increasingly clear that sustained, positive change is built through the work of organized, transparent and democratic civic actors, who courageously and steadfastly challenge and confront oppression.
UUSC’s strategy derived from that statement in a powerful way.
Perhaps a better definition of the concept comes from the “Theory of Change Community”:
Theory of Change is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.
The Outcomes Framework then provides the basis for identifying what type of activity or intervention will lead to the outcomes identified as preconditions for achieving the long-term goal. Through this approach the precise link between activities and the achievement of the long-term goals are more fully understood. This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change actually happens. It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to measure progress towards the achievement of longer-term goals that goes beyond the identification of program outputs.
At ChildFund Australia, one of my earliest actions was to develop and finalize a Theory of Change and the associated Outcomes Framework and Outputs. In this article, I want to describe how we did this, and what we achieved.
First, some definitions. Strangely, my experience is that when we in the INGO community try to agree on a common set of definitions, we usually end up arguing intensely and never agreeing! The concepts we seek to define can be viewed productively in different ways; for me, it seemed most useful to find definitions that we could all live with, and use them, rather than trying to reach full consensus (which, over time, seemed to be an impossible dream!)
Here is the visual framework and definitions that we used in ChildFund Australia:
A set of Inputs producing a consistent set of Outputs is a Project; a set of Projects producing a consistent set of Outcomes is a Program; a set of Programs producing a consistent set of Impacts is a Strategic Plan.
- “Inputs” are usually time or money;
- “Outputs” are tangible and concrete products delivered by or through ChildFund: for example, a training course, a trip or meeting, a publication, rent, a latrine – see below;
- “Outcomes” are changes in the Outcome Indicators that we developed – see below;
- “Impact” is the highest-level of organisational achievement, related directly to the achievement of our mission.
This is pretty standard stuff, nothing particularly innovative. But ChildFund Australia hadn’t formally adopted these definitions, which now began to provide a common language for our program work.
When we began to develop ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change, Outcomes Framework, and Outputs, I took care to bring into the process several important lessons I had learned from previous experiences:
- As mentioned above, from my experience at UUSC I had learned that the creation of a Theory of Change had the potential to be energizing and unifying, if it was carried out in a participatory manner;
- Along the way, as the loyal reader of this series will have seen, my own view of development and poverty had grown to incorporate elements of social justice, collective action, and human rights. I wanted to recognize these important elements into ChildFund Australia’s understanding of child poverty and development;
- I recognized the significant complexity and cost associated with crafting and measuring Outcome Indicators, which would essentially articulate how we would hold ourselves accountable to our purpose. Outcome Indicators are complex to use and expensive to measure. So I felt that we should rely on the work done by technical agencies (the UNDP and UNICEF, other INGOs, and other ChildFund members) whenever possible, and to rely on national-government measurement systems when available and credible. That meant that using MDG-related indicators, where appropriate, would be our first priority, because of the enormous effort that had been put into creating and measuring them around most of the world;
- From my work with CCF, especially having participated in their child-poverty study, I had learned that children experience poverty in a more-complex way than we had earlier recognized: as deprivation, certainly; but also as exclusion and vulnerability. We would incorporate this DEF framework now in Australia;
- In my next blog article, I will describe how we created a “Development Effectiveness Framework” for ChildFund Australia. The “DEF” would describe and detail the processes and products through which we would use the Theory of Change, Outcomes Framework, and Outcomes to operationally improve the effectiveness of our development work. Twice, during my career with Plan International, we had tried to produce such a system, and failed comprehensively (and at great expense.) We had failed due to several fundamental mistakes that I was determined to avoid making in Australia:
- At Plan, we fell into the trap of designing a system whose purpose was, mostly, the demonstration of impact rather than learning and improvement of programming. This led to a complex, and highly-technical system that was never actually able to be implemented. I wanted, this time, to do both – to demonstrate impact and to improve programs – but fundamentally to create a practical system that could be implemented in the reality of our organization;
- One of the consequences of the complexity of the systems we tried to design at Plan was that community members were simply not able to participate in the system in any meaningful way, except by using the data to participate in project planning. We would change this at ChildFund, and build in many more, meaningful areas for community involvement;
- Another mistake we made at Plan was to allow the creation of hundreds of “outputs.” It seemed that everybody in that large organization felt that their work was unique, and had to have unique descriptors. I was determined to keep the DEF as simple and practical as possible;
- The Plan system was entirely quantitative, in keeping with its underlying (and fallacious) pseudo-scientific purpose. But I had learned that qualitative information was just as valid as quantitative information, illustrating a range of areas for program improvement that complemented and extended the purely quantitative. So I was going to work hard to include elements in the DEF that captured the human experience of change in narrative ways;
- Both times we tried to create a DEF-like system in Plan, we never really quite finished, the result was never fully finalized and rolled out to the organization. So, on top of the mistakes we made in developing the system, at great expense, the waste was even more appalling because little good came of the effort of so many people, and the spending of so much time and money. In ChildFund, we would not let “the best be the enemy of the good,” and I would make sure to move to rapidly prototype, implement, and improve the system;
- Finally, I had learned of the advantages and disadvantages of introducing this kind of fundamental change quickly, or slowly:
- Moving slowly enables more participation and ownership, but risks getting bogged down and losing windows of opportunity for change are often short-lived;
- Moving quickly allows the organization to make the change and learn from it within that short window of enthusiasm and patience. The risk is that, at least for organizations that are jaded by too many change initiatives, the process can be over before people actually take it seriously, which can lead to a perception that participation was lacking.
I decided to move quickly, and our CEO (Nigel Spence) and board of directors seemed comfortable with that choice.
The ChildFund Australia Theory of Change
Upon arrival in Sydney in July of 2009, I moved quickly to put in place the basic foundation of the whole system: our Theory of Change. Once staffing in the IPT was in place, we began. Firstly, since we knew that effective programs address the causes of the situation they seek to change, building on the work of Amartya Sen, we defined poverty as the deprivation of the capabilities and freedoms people need to live the life they value.
Then I began to draft and circulate versions of a Theory of Change statement, incorporating input from our board, senior managers (in Sydney and in our Country Offices in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam), and program staff across the agency.
This process went very well, perhaps because it felt very new to our teams. Quickly we settled on the following statement:
Note here that we had included a sense of social justice and activism in the Theory of Change, by incorporating “power” (which, practically, would mean “collective action”) as one central pillar. And it’s clear that the CCF “DEV” framework was also incorporated explicitly.
The four dot-points at the end of the Theory of Change would come to fundamentally underpin our new program approach. We would:
- Build human, capital, natural and social assets around the child, including the caregiver. This phrasing echoed the Ford Foundation’s work on asset-based development, and clarified what we would do to address child deprivation;
- Build the voice and agency of poor people and poor children. This pillar incorporated elements of “empowerment,” a concept we had pioneered in Plan South America long before, along with notions of stages of child and human development; and
- Build the power of poor people and poor children. Here we were incorporating the sense that development is related to human rights, and that human rights don’t advance without struggle and collective action; and we would
- Work to ensure that children and youth are protected from risks in their environments. Our research had shown that poverty was increasingly being experienced by children as related to vulnerability, and that building their resilience and the resilience of the caregivers and communities around them was crucial in the modern context.
This Theory of Change would serve admirably, and endure unchanged, through the next five years of program development and implementation.
Now, how would we measure our accomplishment of the lofty aims articulated in the Theory of Change? We would need to develop a set of Outcome and Output Indicators.
Recall that, according to the definitions that we had agreed earlier, Outputs were seen as: tangible and concrete products delivered by or through ChildFund: for example, a training course, a trip or meeting, a publication, rent, a latrine.
Defining Outputs was an important step for several reasons, mostly related to accountability. Project planning and monitoring, in a classical sense, focuses on determining the outputs that are to be delivered, tracking whether or not they are actually produced, and adjusting implementation along the way.
For ChildFund Australia, and for our public stakeholders, being able to accurately plan and track the production of outputs represented a basic test of competence: did we know what we were doing? Did we know what we had done? Being able to answer those questions (for example, “we planned to drill 18 wells, and train 246 new mothers, and ended up drilling 16 wells and training 279 new mothers”) would build our creditability. Perhaps more pungently, if we could not answer those questions (“we wanted to do the best we could, but don’t really know where our time and the budget went…”!) our credibility would suffer. Of course, we wanted to know much more than that – our DEF would measure much more – but tracking outputs was basic and fundamental.
To avoid the trap we had fallen into in Plan, where we ended up with many hundreds of Outputs, I was determined to keep things simple. We had already planned to bring all our Program Managers to Sydney in October of 2009, for another purpose, and I managed to commandeer this key group for a day. I locked them in a meeting room for a day with the task of listing all the outputs that they were producing, and agreeing a short and comprehensive list. We would then work with this draft and use it as a starting point.
The process worked very well. Our Program Managers produced a list of around 35 Output Indicators that covered, well-enough, pretty much all the work they were doing. Over the next three years, as our programming evolved and matured, we ended up adding about 15 more Output Indicators, with the final list (as of March, 2014) as follows:
This listing worked very well, enabling us to design, approve, monitor and manage project activities in an accountable way. As will be seen when I describe our Development Effectiveness Framework, in the next article in this series, we incorporated processes for documenting ChildFund Australia’s planning for Output production through the project-development process, and for tracking actual Output delivery.
Designing Outcome Indicators was a bigger challenge. Several of our colleague ChildFund agencies (mostly the US member) had developed indicators that were Outcome-like, and I was aware of the work of several other INGOs that we could “borrow.” Most importantly, as outlined above, I wanted to align our child-focused Outcome Indicators with the Millennium Development Goals as much as possible. These were robust, scientific, reliable and, in most countries, measured fairly accurately.
As we drafted sets of Outcome Indicators and circulated them for comment with our Board Program Review Committee, Senior Management, and program staff, our CEO (Nigel Spence) was insistent that we kept the number of Outcome Indicators as small as possible.
I agreed with Nigel, in general (“keep things simple”) and in particular (in Plan we had been swamped by too many indicators, and never actually implemented either system). But it was a big challenge to measure the lofty concepts included in our Theory of Change with just a few indicators!
When we finalized the first iteration, approved by our Board of Directors in June of 2010, we had only 16 Outcome Indicators:
Nigel thought this was too many; I thought we had missed covering several crucial areas. So it seemed a good compromise!
It would take some time to work out the exact mechanism for measuring these Indicators in our field work, but in the end we were able to keep things fairly simple and we began to work with communities to assess change and determine attribution (more on that in the next article in this series.)
Additional Outcome Indicators were introduced over the next few years, elaborating especially the domains of “Protection” and “Power,” which were relatively undeveloped in that initial package of 16, finalized in June of 2010.
So, by the time I was celebrating one year at ChildFund Australia, we had agreed and approved a clear and comprehensive Theory of Change, a coherent and concise set of robust Outcome Indicators, and a complete set of (not too many) Output Indicators.
Looking back, I think we got this right. The process was very inclusive and participatory, yet agile and productive. The results were of high quality, reflecting the state of the art of our sector, and my own learning through the years. It was a big step forward for ChildFund Australia.
This meant that the foundation for a strong Development Effectiveness Framework was in place, a framework which would help us make our program work as effective as possible in building brighter futures for children. This was (if I do say so myself!), a huge achievement in such a complex organization, especially that we accomplished it in only one year.
From the perspective of 2018, there is little I would change about how we took on this challenge, and what we produced.
My next article in this series will describe how we build the ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework on the foundation of our Theory of Change and Outcome and Output Indicators. Stay tuned!
Here are links to earlier blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team.