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5 ways adaptive management makes small NGOs more effective

30 May 2019
Author: Emily Malcolm

As a smaller-sized, UK-based NGO working with local organisations internationally, we needed a realistic approach to project management that enhanced our focus on impact. Toybox works in challenging contexts where children and young people face extreme hardships living or spending significant time on the streets. These urban contexts are also constantly changing.

We adopted this approach to ensure that our projects were contributing to positive change through monitoring, learning and adapting to achieve impact in the best way possible in the cities where we work.

Over the last few years, we have been piloting adaptive programming with our partners across Latin America, Africa and Asia to support children living or connected to the street. This approach has been developed within the wider context of an organisation that is focused on innovation and learning, which has enabled adaptive management to become mainstream in our operations.

To provide ideas for small NGOs to be more adaptive in managing programmes, I’m sharing five key ways that adaptive management has made us more effective. These come from our recent paper on our learnings of adaptive management in practice, the first paper of its kind by a smaller-sized NGO. 

All learning is embraced (successes and failures)

Because everyone’s contribution is recognised, staff strive to try, fail, adapt and learn and are always looking for ways to improve. Naturally, project documentation is key, but it is also crucial to entrench a culture that celebrates change, innovation, failure, learning and success – and then strives to repeat this cycle all over again!

Learning from partners triggers cross-organisational learning, which encourages us to review our methodology and thinking. At our recent Partner Learning event, all our partners shared good practices with one another, which gave us ideas for further adaptations and tools to strengthen our project management.

Adapting in real-time moves us closer to achieving greater impact

Because Toybox is a smaller organisation, the decision-making process is quick. When mistakes are recognised, they are fixed even quicker. All ideas are researched or tried on a small scale first, to gain evidence (through feedback and research) on how this new way could work. Testing and tracking assumptions we are making brings about evidence-based change, so our adaptations have a stronger chance of reaching the desired change.

For example, feedback from community members and youth provided new ideas on how to improve our economic empowerment project in Kenya, such as developing community mentors through Train the Trainer workshops to promote sustaining guidance and support from the community members themselves. These new or adapted activities were tried out in several communities over a few months, and with evidence of success, they were added to the project to achieve greater impact and sustainability.

Adaptive management is good value for money

Value for money is key to any organisation and we have seen that by constantly adapting and looking to change, we are attaining greater impact and are a more cost-effective organisation in terms of income and other essential metrics.  For example, in our project in Peru, there was little change in reducing domestic violence levels in high-risk homes as parents were not engaged or coming to our training. Our partner worked with the parents to find a solution and developed training sessions around their interests (football for fathers and sewing for mothers). More parents came to these interactive sessions where they discussed good parenting, values and attitudes.

Because of this adaptation, they saw a much greater increase in behaviour change, with 74% of children expressing that their parents were treating them better by the end of the project. 

Adaptive programming is good project management

Adaptive programming can be seen as a separate approach to other project management practices. However, we have found that other good practices – including context-focused and locally-led development, participation, and feedback mechanisms – are all integral to adaptive programming.

The learning from these practices feeds into making adaptations that improve impact. For example, strong feedback mechanisms provide a platform for communities’ suggestions that help us adapt our projects as they run. We have found that this holistic and simple approach to adaptive programming is an excellent way to promote good project management.

Stronger partnerships and projects

Building a culture of adaptive management with partners is a process that takes time, but we have found that it is incredibly worthwhile, as it strengthens partners’ ownership of a project and the partnership itself. Our theory of change approach promotes our partners to focus on outcomes and to periodically review how best to reach this positive change.

Strong trust and good communication are vital for partners to feel confident to come forward with new ideas and give evidence for change, which will ultimately strengthen the impact of the project. 

Join our Small NGOs group to discuss the challenges facing small NGOs and make connections with other organisations. Groups are free for Bond members to join and take part in. 

About the author

Portrait of Emily Malcolm
Toybox

Emily Malcolm is the Programme Manager (Africa, Asia) and MEAL Manager at Toybox, a UK-based charity with 25 years’ experience supporting and protecting street-connected children in Latin America, Africa & Asia.