Above: The first draft of Akvo’s Theory of Change. Akvo Amsterdam office. 21 February 2017. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.
What’s Akvo’s impact in the world? How can we better support our partners in achieving their missions? Will our strategies contribute to the change we want to create?

During the end of January and beginning of February, my colleagues Abdoulaye, Annabelle, Anita, Ethel and Henry held a Planning Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (PMEL) week in our Amsterdam office. Their objective was to engage in a process that would help us find better answers to the questions above. For five full days, they connected with multiple people across the organisation in order to:

  1. Create a first draft of Akvo’s Theory of Change
  2. Streamline potential Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning services
  3. Define a framework that can better help Akvo monitor its results in the future

In the spirit of helping them communicate their efforts around this, I joined a couple of sessions, where I had the chance to observe, provide feedback and also record some interviews about their work.

Here’s a short video I made. It will give you an impression of what this process is all about.
https://vimeo.com/204867511

When in doubt, zoom out
Akvo has a broad portfolio of tools and services provided by clever people, in different regions of the world, and serving multiple sectors, like water, sanitation & hygiene, agriculture and renewable energy. Over the past ten years, we’ve helped hundreds of organisations and a few dozen national governments to capture, understand and share data so they can take better decisions and actions based on facts. As we grow and things become more complex, it’s easy to get stuck in our own daily routines and working silos and lose sight of our purpose and a common sense of direction. Why is it that we do this? To which impact are we trying to contribute? Do we need to make any adjustments in our strategies? Should we expand our support to partners, beyond our tools? How should we monitor our progress and evaluate our results? How shall we better partner with organisations?

My colleague Anita always likes to say “When in doubt, zoom out”. We joke about it all the time when we feel stuck in a situation that needs deep thinking and a different angle, sort of bird’s eye view perspective. It is in this context that the PMEL week held in our office seemed like the best way to engage in a reflection process to make our work more explicit, create a comprehensive understanding of how we can contribute to organisations becoming better at using the insights from data to improve their effectiveness, and identify different pathways for us to contribute to positive change.

Above: Anita, Ethel, Henry, Abdoulaye and Annabelle. The driving force behind the PMEL week. Akvo Amsterdam Office. 30 January 2017. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.
What is a Theory of Change, and how can it help Akvo?
Is it a diagram?  Is it a process?  Is it a methodology?  It can be all this, and much more. As with many things, it will probably depend on who you ask. The Center for Theory of Change, defines it as “…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”.

During this week, I also learned that a Theory of Change needs to be generic enough to involve all the different aspects of work being done in the organisation, while allowing enough room to be filled with tangible examples of work, which people can relate to. So far, it seemed to me that my colleagues are doing an excellent job in making the reality of our work more explicit to everyone, as well as showing how it fits in the bigger picture of aid effectiveness.  

What comes next?  
As I write this, the first draft of Akvo’s Theory of Change is almost ready to be shared. We believe that this will help our staff to see where they fit in the grand scheme of things, and will also enable partners to see the integrated chain of work we are involved in and how we can better support them in their efforts to become more collaborative, more transparent and more effective. This process will also lead to improving our portfolio of tools and services (as well as potentially generating new ones) that we can provide to actively engage with partners on to achieve a common goal.

We also hope that while trying it out, both staff and partners can use the Theory of Change to engage on a discussion around our combined strengths, and map out those those we are really good at, as opposed to investing resources on those which are not helping us go where we want to. 

Alvaro de Salvo is communications executive and international award winning filmmaker at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter @aj_desalvo.