NGOs should develop activity plans in discussion with local people and other collaborators, identifying who would have to do what to achieve specific goals.
In order to contribute to other people’s efforts, NGOs’ activities and operational goals have to respond to their priorities. Activity plans are only as good as the dialogue and insight that generate them.
Plans should identify who has a significant influence on achieving goals, both allies and opponents, and what they are expected to do to achieve them. Various planning tools provide practical ways of doing this. They all focus on people, relationships and behaviours.
The tools generate a theory of change – describing how the NGO expects that its actions will contribute to other people’s efforts. Common theories of change include NGOs:
- providing services that improve welfare,
- building the capacity of organisations to represent people’s interests,
- developing technologies that poor people will use to improve welfare,
- lobbying decision makers to implement policies that benefit the poor.
In each case, results depend on what other people, outside the NGO, decide to do. They are ‘theories’ as people’s intentions and interactions cannot be fully predicted. Almost all NGO activities generate unintended results. Plans set out an initial analysis to be reviewed and improved, not taken as definitive.
The main assumptions and links in a theory of change may be supported by existing evidence. NGOs can also generate new evidence to test them, for instance through impact evaluations.
A plan based on analysing ‘who does what’ creates a good basis for collaborating with different stakeholders on complicated social issues. It can be used to assess whether stakeholders have the incentives and commitment to support the plan – a crucial factor for success – as well as for on-going analysis and accountability.
Analysing a situation is part of the development process itself, helping people consider the factors that govern their lives and imagine how things could be done differently. Planning may also include identifying compromises between different interest groups, such as women and men, different castes, or people working in different industries.
NGOs also have to develop detailed implementation plans and budgets, setting out how they expect to achieve the goals agreed in dialogue with others. Implementation plans are likely to be adapted during the course of a project in the light of feedback and other new circumstances.
A growing body of research criticises how well ‘logical frameworks‘ work for planning development activities. They focus a lot of attention on long term changes, which are out of an NGO’s control, and tend to be aspirational. They tend to discourage analysis of different stakeholders’ interests and assume social change is linear and predictable. They have not proved very effective guides for action and collaboration, or good bases for accountability.
Developing a theory of change in collaboration with others can provide an opportunity to build relationships and make decisions together.
The planning tools provide examples of practical tools NGOs are using to work this way.
Participation is an end, and not simply a means; the central point of development is to enable people to participate in the governance of their own lives.” Allan Kaplan, 2000