How can theories of change help in working with the private sector?

As regular readers will know, I’ve been doing some thinking on ‘theories of change’ recently. A few people have asked me if the change in question is mainly political/social change, or whether it applies to economic developments too. I think there’s a high degree of commonality, so at last week’s discussion on working with the private sector, I took the set of ‘change archetypes’ and strategies below and tried to apply it to Oxfam’s work on livelihoods. 

Archetype: How Change Happens  Change Strategy: What we do
Active Citizenship: four powers Integrated change strategy using multiple approaches (a favourite ToC for work on women’s empowerment)
Active Citizenship: People in the streets Popular mobilization, supporting grassroots organization
Active Citizenship: Grassroots leadership Leadership training
Elites: enlightened leaders Advocacy and elite networking
Elites: Technocrats make evidence-based policy Research-based advocacy
Cross-Class: Democracy works   Election campaigns, party influencing, voter registration drives
Cross-Class: Coalitions of dissimilar players (e.g. civil society, private sector, sympathetic state officials) drive ‘transitions to accountability’ Alliances and coalitions; convening role; use of power analysis to design insider-outsider advocacy and programme strategies
Dynamics: steady incremental progress Logframe/linear planningIdentify binding constraints, tackling them as priority
Dynamics: shocks, tipping points and  breakthroughs Reactive: rapid shift of resources to respond to shocks (financial crisis, Arab Spring etc)
Dynamics: contagion, through the power of example Piloting/supporting new approaches, publicising success
Dynamics: non linear and evolutionary  ‘Accelerating evolution’: supporting experiments, helping with variation and selection; advocacy for amplification

Here’s what jumped out in terms of our current work on the private sector:

Active Citizenship: Four Powers
What is it? Focusing on redistributing power within society, starting by supporting poor people to build their ‘power within’ – a sense of powerdignity, agency and rights, then ‘power with’ – collective organization around common goals, before moving on to ‘power to’ express demands and ‘power over’ those in authority.
How does it apply to private sector work? Lots of work on strengthening producer organizations to improve their bargaining power in markets, and brokering relationships between them and more powerful actors in supply chains.

Elites: Enlightened leaders
What is it? Kind of obvious
barbara stocking DavosHow does it apply to private sector work? Direct networking with captains of industry at places like Davos to persuade them to overhaul their business models and practices

Elites: Appealing to technocrats
What is it? Forget the leaders, we need to work directly with the officials who actually do stuff, and show them how being pro-poor can help them achieve their organizational objectives
How does it apply to private sector work? Lots of conversations with mid-level executives about the business case for doing good stuff – staff morale and retention, reputational risk, positive brand image etc

Cross-class Coalitions
What is it? Often more effective to work in coalitions of dissimilar organizations than to put 100 NGOs in a room to negotiate a joint communiqué.
How does it apply to private sector work? Teaming up with progressive sectors of business and others to lobby governments and less forward-thinking firms on everything from ethical trading to ‘publish what you pay’ to climate change.

Dynamics: Power of example
What is it? Seeing that something works in practice is more convincing than a thousand policy papers
How does it apply to private sector work? Lots of pilots, which we then document and publicise

And what does the table suggest might be missing from or weak in our current work on the private sector? Some thoughts (we may be doing some of these already, but they certainly weren’t prominent in last week’s big cheese discussion)

People in the streets: Outsider strategies such as protest movements or working in coalition with trade unionsstreet protests

Democracy works: Campaigns through parliaments or local governments on issues such as access to finance for small producers, the ‘enabling environment’ – infrastructure etc, labour regulation, competition policy or public procurement policies (e.g. the work on smallholder supply chains in Bogotá)

Shocks and tipping points: Hurricane Katrina is credited with transforming Walmart’s attitude to social and environmental responsibility. How many U-turns in corporate practices are down to similar shocks, whether external like Katrina, or internal, like corporate scandals or financial meltdowns? Should we focus more on spotting and seizing those moments of opportunity rather than more linear advocacy strategies?

Evolution: If we were to take evolution seriously, we might try and ‘see like a venture capitalist’, spotting new and emerging ideas in the private sector, supporting and publicising them, spreading them to new geographies and situations, accepting (and learning from) much higher failure rates. We would act as amplifiers rather than do-ers.

So yes, I still think theories of change are useful, and yes, that includes private sector work.

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One Response to “How can theories of change help in working with the private sector?”
  1. Keith Johnston

    Thanks Duncan
    I find the archetypes useful and I am still turning them over in my mind.
    Where would you put legal actions, class action suits? I wonder if this is a tactic that forms a subgroup of engagement with a particular elite – the judiciary or quasi-judicial bodies.
    I am also wondering about engagement with the private sector and often in opposition to private sector interests to establish markets or change market rules or enforce the rules of the market. I guess this is probably engagements with elites and technocrats. There is an interesting example of elite engagement in this morning’s Australian newspaper where a couple of conservation-minded multi-millionaires have bought a keystone woodchip mill in a move that could hasten the end of the logging of indigenous forests in southern Tasmania.
    This seems to be in a category where there can be alliances between interest groups and businesses to make or modify markets.
    Much of the strength in the TOC archetypes may come from enabling us to talk more explicitly about the relationships between different archetypes: e.g. how we might combine popular mobilisation with elite networking to achieve a particular tipping point and then work with technocrats to fix the gains in place – or how different parts of the coalition might lead at different times playing to their specific strengths.

    Duncan: Interesting Keith. You’re absolutely right about the importance of combining multiple ToCs – the table is supposed to expand options and ideas, not close them down. Legal suits is interesting, and an important change strategy both North and South. It could be a subset of ‘making democracy work’, or it may merit a line of its own. Only problem is I want to keep it on a single page of A4 – prepare for a shrinking font!

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