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How can NGOs get better at using evidence to influence governments and companies?

October 26, 2017
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This week I attended an ‘Evidence for Influencing’ conference in the Netherlands. A couple of Oxfam colleagues had evidence-based-change-placard3started planning it as a small event, and then found such interest in the topic that it mushroomed to 150 people over 2 days, roughly divided between Oxfammers and others (NGOs, media, academia).

My overall impression was that campaigners, academics and governments are all struggling with the link between evidence and influencing. It’s a bit like teenage sex – everyone thinks that everyone else is doing it with great expertise and having a fine old time, and that it’s just you that has no idea what you’re doing…..

I had to give some broad comments, many of them drawing on previous posts on this blog. Sorry if that means you’ve heard them before, but as I recently told UNICEF bloggers,  a powerpoint is just a blog waiting to be written, so I thought I’d follow my own advice. Anyway, according to Fidel Castro ‘repetition is a revolutionary virtue’.

First point, what do we mean by evidence? The organizers defined it as ‘data or information presented in support of an assertion’. So research at the ‘hard’ end of the spectrum (lots of data, RCTs and the rest) is just one form of evidence: experiences (whether of researchers, or of communities and individuals) are another, as are narratives. The plural of ‘anecdote’ may not be ‘data’, as Claire Melamed says, but it is certainly evidence.

correlation-v-causation-cartoon2-300x124Which kinds of evidence should NGOs be stressing? Over recent decades, we have moved from relying almost entirely on moral suasion (we call it ‘framing’ these days) with stories, but little data to back it up (‘we have a moral duty to help poor countries’) to today’s blend of morality and measurement. Overall, that has to be a good thing, but if the measurement people become too professionalized and insulated from the rest of their organizations, there are downsides too: they risk becoming delinked from the thinking about power, politics and influence and start to believe in the power of ‘pure’ research, with some panels at the conference starting to resemble the ritualised academic dance of hypothesis, methodology, findings. (Don’t get me started on panels)

That worries me because if NGOs start to behave like traditional academics they could disappear from view, eclipsed by the sheer scale of academia. A recent paper found that there are 200,000 full time academics in the UK alone. In contrast, the full time equivalents of Oxfam’s researchers on issues of development, poverty etc number less than 100 world-wide. So we need to spot the niches we can usefully fill – the over-used ‘USP’ (Unique Selling Point) of marketing.

For me the USP of aid NGOs comes down to authenticity, connectedness and being able to produce clear, convincingevidence2 narratives and powerful, human stories. For all sorts of reasons, academia often fails miserably at one or more of these. So the kind of evidence we generate should build on our USP: work extra hard to find, test and polish powerful narratives and/or make what we say is rooted solidly in the experience of our programmes or the lives of real people; give far more attention to ‘bearing witness’ – ensuring that the voice of people, communities, local leaders and organizations, and even our own frontline staff acquires greater, less mediated prominence in the way we talk to the public. This would be a challenge to NGO people keen to ensure a single, coherent message goes out to the public, but it could really help shift the balance of power in who shapes the conversation about development issues. Anyone fancy setting up an NGO to do this – maybe a ‘Hear Directly’ to sit alongside ‘Give Directly’?

That attention to reality on the ground also reflects a shift to systems thinking – we should spot the positive deviants that the system has already thrown up and help to record, understand and spread them; run diary projects to uncover the real lives of poor communities; behave more like anthropologists investigating what is actually happening out there in all its messy glory, rather than economists seeking to confirm their ‘priors’; escape from the tyranny of the project and ‘it’s all about us’.

Part of ‘dancing with the system’ is spotting and responding to the windows of opportunity offered by crises and failures of public policy. Academics struggle to respond to such ‘critical junctures’, perhaps due to being trapped by the conveyor belt of journal papers and research programmes. But to be honest, NGOs often aren’t much better.

The importance of timing goes beyond crises-as-opportunities. Political timetables are more open to evidence and influence at some moments than at others (new leaders, manifestoes and elections as well as after scandals); as issues travel down the ‘policy funnel’ from public discussion to state action, they require different kinds of research at each stage; people as individuals are more open to evidence at some times than at others (when they are young, or in an unfamiliar context or new job).

your-conference-presentationHow can we get better at spotting impending or current opportunities and rapidly marshalling the evidence that is needed? One way is to get away from one of the greatest barriers to ‘evidence for influence’ – the dead hand of supply side thinking. Research conferences are all about the supply of research – the panels, the tenure cattle market etc. There is precious little attention given to the demand side, when do the people we are trying to influence actually want to hear new evidence? In what form? (even with government ministers, first-hand experience usually trumps any number of academic papers). Who do they want to hear about it from (the messenger, not the message)?

Bridging supply and demand is all about building networks and relationships, not just plans and products, as Babu Rahman explained so brilliantly recently. Evidence doesn’t speak or influence for itself. Researchers can’t hide behind their desks; they have to get out more (and not just to talk to other researchers).

Others who attended the conference, feel free to add your bit.


  1. I wasn’t at the conference but in addition to communication, networking and relationship building, those who want to influence need to get better at understanding the institutional and organizational constraints and opportunities that face policy makers. We need to be able to articulate and sometimes help create the organizational spaces where our evidence could be used.

  2. The “Hear Directly” part – authenticity, connectedness, powerful narratives – sounds a lot like the international solidarity networks and social movements which were perhaps stronger in the past, and nowadays seem to have gone slightly out of fashion. Maybe this is because the sector has become more NGO-ised. So, I´m afraid I´m not up for setting up another NGO, but firmly committed to supporting efforts for existing INGOs to build more meaningful links with social movements around the world.

  3. Like your point about – “When do people we are trying to influence want to hear our evidence?”

    Perhaps at the same time – when are local social movements ready to go for influencing? Are we ‘serving’ these, or just pushing our own agendas? Latter is also fine – just be clear about it.

  4. Your point that “there are 200,000 full time academics in the UK alone” is what really bothers me. It seems like over the past 20 years there has grown a huge industry of researchers, evaluation experts, and consultants who are getting well paid (rich) for the work they do….and not nearly enough money is being spent to build and sustain strong organizations with people in place who can put the “evidence” to work in the on-going process of building strong organizations that are constantly trying to improve what they accomplish, using experience, the ideas of others, available research, and a flow of flexible operating resources.

  5. Thanks for this great piece, Duncan. I agree that researchers should ‘get out more’ and NGOs need to focus more on bearing witness. I just wonder if organisations like Ground Truth Solutions or Time to Listen’s CDA aren’t already filling the gap. Why would we need to set up a new NGO to Hear Directly? What is still missing? Thanks.

  6. This is great Duncan. I want to build on a few of your points, which I hope to turn into a blog soon.

    First, influencing requires serious strategic thinking and clarity. Unfortunately I missed the conference, but I hope we can get the big picture clear on influencing so that we move towards strategy-led work instead of activity-led work. I’ve been reading Kingdon’s book on policy agendas, which has informed the next two points.
    Second, you rightfully observe that we should position for the short term opportunities (which Kingdon discusses as policy windows), but that also requires setting up NGOs in the long term to jump in when the timing is right. Establishing networks with policy makers and power brokers, developing an expertise and reputation on a topic, and having a strong set of tools for messaging are obvious steps toward this.
    Third, NGOs such as Oxfam have had limited success with mobilizing mass movements for policy change. NGOs are similarly not particularly good at devising sophisticated policy solutions (unless we seriously invest over the long run). But NGOs are quite good at identifying problems and raising these issues through a variety of mediums with a diversity of content. Killer facts, human stories, and in depth diagnoses of problems provide content for different audiences, and high level lobbying, public stunts, and grasstops influencers help reach these audiences. Being clear on this would go a long way to developing coherent influencing strategies.

    1. Yes, I think we’re often better at problem definition than solutions, but always seem to assume we need to do both. Maybe we need to rethink.

  7. Well, now you definitely need to get a like button, Duncan!
    – narratives that ‘bear witness’ – yes, this is a desperate gap and agree with Thomas that there are plenty of real people out there but NGOs have not recently done much of a job of what we used to describe (and maybe deliver?) as amplification.
    – be the organisation that is in place to surf the wave when it comes – yes, again a real challenge to the way NGOs currently think (and get funded)
    – shall we think about the demand side – yes another gap. Is it the job of NGOs? In my new UK-focused role I could spend a lot of time getting much better resourced bits of government to be better at using evidence, but I do kind of think that bit of the waterfront belongs to them. Is it the same with the Kenyan or Ecuadorian government? Really not sure – in previous jobs I put plenty of UK / EU-funded time and effort into the demand side.

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