What we think

Empathy for M&E

1st March 2016 Posted by: Rachael

By Madeline Nightingale, Ethicore Associate

As an interested observer, much seems to be asked of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) professionals:  uphold the highest possible quality standards; use appropriate and robust methodologies; attribute change excluding any contradictory factors; be cost effective and capture the theory of change.

This is tough with unanticipated effects and broader, more diffuse consequences than those identified in the theory of change. It can be challenging at an organisational level, particularly in smaller organisations, whose capacity and resources are more limited.

How, then, can organisations think creatively about impact? Here are three possible routes in a complex and resource-limited environment:

  • A flexible, iterative approach to measuring impact. As well as being set before the programme starts, evaluation criteria and metrics may be adjusted in response to what is happening on the ground. Melinda Gates urges NGOs to create a “continuous feedback loop” in a recent Ted Talk, rather than relying entirely on post hoc evaluation. You can think about your theory of change as a work in progress, informed by an ever-expanding evidence base. Any theory of change is a model, a framework built on the best available evidence. Programming is increasingly agile and adaptive, and so an iterative approach can enhance learning.
  • Thinking about impact in terms of how and why. Are large-scale quantitative or experimental designs, such as Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) or quasi-experimental studies, the only credible causal approaches? A broader range of methodologies may offer insights into causal processes. Qualitative and participatory methods can aid us in understanding how and why programmes achieve or fall short of stated objectives, going beyond establishing or quantifying impact. They may also offer insights into broader, perhaps unanticipated, effects. Rather than being inferior or supplementary to experimental data, mixed methods can build a richer causal picture. Integration is key:  take a look at  Michael Quinn Patton’s blog, where he describes qualitative and quantitative evaluations too often behaving like two year-olds refusing to play with one other.
  • Collating evidence to assess impact. Even if primary data collection is small-scale or otherwise limited, it is still of value in the context of a broader evidence base. We have to avoid generalisations or tenuous assumptions, where interventions and contexts differ.  However, the overall weight of evidence, particularly when informed by systematic reviews, gives strong grounds for making claims about impact. As stated by DFID[1], “individual studies, no matter how rigorous or scientific, are not a sufficient evidence base from which to make informed policy and practice decisions”.

The narrative of monitoring and evaluation is becoming increasingly important, with greater emphasis placed on effectiveness, efficiency and accountability. Looking to the future, data synthesis will become key, pulling together data from a range of sources, including open data and social media. New technologies and digital tools also provide opportunities to streamline and innovate. With greater attention paid to M & E than ever before, an ever-expanding evidence base and new tools and methodologies on the horizon, we can embrace fresh opportunities to think creatively and constructively about impact.


Madeline Nightingale is an experienced social researcher who has worked across the public, private and non-profit sector. With an MSc in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford, she is currently working towards her PhD in social policy, focusing on working poverty in Europe. [Department of Social Policy and Intervention].

Planning for Impact

11th February 2016 Posted by: Rachael

By Jane Thurlow, Ethicore Associate

Planning for impact builds on our Design for Impact series where we outline 3 steps for good planning:

  1. Identify where you are
  2. Define where you want to go
  3. Design the journey

So follow our plan for more influence, and unlock your potential for genuine impact …

Planning for impact infographic

Jane has over 20 years experience working in research, strategy, innovation and marketing in the commercial and charity sectors. She enjoys informing thinking and decision making, highlighting the strategic choices that an organisation needs to make.


2nd February 2016 Posted by: Rachael

ETHICORE Extreme Engagement Approach

By Rachael Clay, Director, Ethicore

The challenge of sustainable development is beyond you and I, isn’t it?  We need to work together in partnerships and multi-stakeholder intiatives (MSIs), but we lead different organisations.  So, how do we build these relationships and design for impact with others?  Achieving deep and shared understanding, values and partnership takes what we call, ‘EXTREME ENGAGEMENT’.


We’ve been working with NGOs, business and institutions, long enough to know organisations work at different paces, speak different ‘languages’ and prioritise different things.  We know how hard it is to lift out of one’s own organisational pressures to create new strategies.  Organisations can succeed in creating breakthrough partnerships and then struggle to bring their own organisations along.  Initiatives can be established and then falter as people move on and relationships change.  It’s a challenging journey, but with ‘extreme engagement’ one can achieve more transformational change.


Our extreme engagement process flows in a continuous cycle:

Identify – Clarify – Understand – Empathise – Lead.


  • Identify the different perspectives to begin the process of engagement and each time new challenges/opportunities arise.
  • Clarify points of view, perspectives and possibilities.
  • Develop a deeper understanding of the drivers, motivations and scenarios.
  • Empathise, stepping in to the shoes of others.
  • Lead, co-creating new possibilities with others


There are three key elements of extreme engagement:

Extreme listening: Listen twice as hard as you speak and be self-aware.  Your own perspective is at work, so use the ladder of inference to take an objective view.


Extreme immersion: Build a deep understanding of your key stakeholders (internal and external, supporter and detractor), what drives them, what do they need, what are their pressures?  Our next blog features tools for immersion.


Extreme insight: Hold up a mirror to your organisation and partners.  Give people the space and experiences to see different perspectives, co-create ideas and be part of the change.  The science of persuasion can help you engage others.


In our planning for impact blog we will share more of the tools to go beyond engagement to extreme engagement. The key is to go deeper with interviews with stakeholders and thought leaders, co-creation groups, online listening, and other methods.


In summary, ‘extreme engagement’ is about working with your internal and external stakeholders and partners with a conviction to genuinely move organisations forwards.  It is about deeply understanding barriers and constraints, as well as opportunities, to create sustainable change.  It is setting out what you want to achieve but also HOW you will really achieve it.  ‘Extreme engagement’ is a continuous process, from partnership brokering and design, through to evaluation and renewal.  Like any relationship, you need to put in time and effort, but with ‘extreme engagement’ you can energise yourself and your organisation as well as achieve real impact.



Rachael Clay set up Ethicore in 2008 to help organisations have a bigger impact through insight, engagement and partnership.  She has over twenty years experience working with business, NGOs and institutions.  Rachael is expert in research, stakeholder engagement, facilitation, strategy and partnership.


The Ethicore Partnership Approach, by Rachael Clay, Director Ethicore


29th January 2016 Posted by: Rachael


BY Jane Thurlow, Ethicore Associate

Business, NGOs and institutions alike, are working towards sustainable development.  It takes a deep understanding of the issues and opportunities, a bold focus on social and environmental impact and new partnerships to transform lives and businesses.  All this, while we lead our own organisations.


So, what does it mean to have a real impact?  Whether a sustainable business, an influential NGO or an effective government, having a real impact is…

  • Resonant – with partners as well as the organization.
  • Evaluable – in a way that informs decisions.
  • Accountable – to external and internal stakeholders.
  • Leading – the organisation and others to deliver sustainable change.


Our design for impact responds to the real challenges of operating any organisation for social impact, whether for-profit or not.  The series kicks off with advice on ‘extreme engagement’ and covers ‘planning for impact’, ‘modelling change’, ‘systems approaches’ and ‘M&E for impact’, sharing our experience and insights. So take an extreme journey with us over the next few weeks while we share our Design for Impact series.


Jane has over 20 years experience working in research, strategy, innovation and marketing in the commercial and charity sectors. She enjoys informing thinking and decision making, highlighting the strategic choices that an organisation needs to make.

Learning from development: how constraint can foster innovation for UK services

18th January 2016 Posted by: Rachael

By Kate Wareing, Ethicore Associate


Although it makes me feel old to do the maths, I’ve now accumulated some twenty years of working experience across the UK statutory, not for profit and international development sectors. Whenever I cross over between the UK and development worlds I am struck by how much the work has in common and how little routine cross fertilisation there is between sectors.

Both development and UK charity sectors work with people whose lives are marginal, who are coping with huge insecurity. Learning from each others’ skills and experience offers opportunities to improve outcomes both in the UK and globally. Specifically for constrained UK services, we could look to development for inspiration and innovation for effective outcomes.

So let’s take a look at what I mean:

  1. Focus on assets not needs: In the face of pressure on resources to deliver services to vulnerable people in the UK the policy directive has been to target available resources as accurately as possible on those judged to be in greatest need. Needs assessment has therefore grown, and people have to “prove” their “need” in order to get access to services or help.

Now on the face of it this seems sensible. But when you are trying to recover after a crisis and improve your life the last thing you need is to have to prove how useless you are in order to be able to access the help you need. Focusing on your “needs” rather than your capacities is a profoundly depressing and negative way of framing the world.

The development sector typically starts from the opposite end of the telescope – focusing on “asset based” approaches to development – identifying the skills, capacities and access to resources that people can use as the foundations from which they can develop businesses, build their future security and increase their ability to cope with setbacks.

Both approaches have value in both contexts. But there is huge untapped learning about how we can identify and build capacities to improve outcomes for vulnerable individuals and communities right here in the UK.  So think about focusing on assets.

  1. Plan for resilience: One thing that services in the UK (and their funders) battle to try and reduce is what is known as the “revolving door” phenomena – where clients make progress whilst in a service but then fail to maintain their progress and end up back in services when the next crisis hits. The “revolving door” is no good for people who end up back where they started and no good for the public purse with repeated pressure for already stretched services.

One concept from international development that is just beginning to be talked about in the UK is resilience – how you can help people to increase their ability to survive the next shock. When you’re working with communities whose lives are vulnerable to flooding, to drought, to conflict or are on a knife edge economically the question is all about how the crisis can be survived and how people can be equipped to minimise the impact of the next crisis.  If you’re working in the UK with people whose lives are very fragile,  how can you reduce the domino effect when one crisis precipitates another and another until people are unable to cope and recover? Planning for resilience is planning to stop that door revolving.

3.Take a holistic approach:   UK services are often constructed to address one dimension of people’s lives – their mental health problem, or their homelessness, or their lack of income. What the best of development does very well is examine and then attempt to address the way in which people’s whole lives connect, and then works with communities to try to work out how lives can be improved. I remember a project I visited in Thailand where the project had begun by looking at the impact of an AIDs / HIV diagnosis on people in a particular community. Apart from immediate health needs it was clear that the impact on women was far more acute, as they experienced greater social stigmatisation that often resulted in the collapse of their family relationships and their incomes. It made absolute sense then for work to focus as much on social attitudes to women living with AIDs as on the provision of health care and early diagnosis.

We hear a lot in the UK about the lack of “joined up working”, and there is good evidence that when services are able to behave in a more holistic and “person centred” way that they can achieve better outcomes. We also need to focus on the relationships between people, and how our support structures can add value to people’s own capacities, and those of communities more widely. Taking a holistic approach will pay dividends in outcomes for vulnerable people.

In economically constrained times when services are being cut and people are under pressure learning can be seen as a luxury. Learning from a sector which works in environments of extreme scarcity offers fresh perspectives for the UK  on which we can build improved services and better lives.


Kate Wareing has twenty years experience working across the statutory, charitable and not for profit sectors in housing, social care and international development.  Most recently Director of the UK Poverty Programme at Oxfam , she now advises organisations on strategy development, learning and capacity building.