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Bridging the gap: linking immediate changes to long term impact

AUTHOR: Rosemary Maguire, Senior Consultant, NEF Consulting.

Most research on the effects of Early Childhood Development projects in a development setting focuses on the long term impact that is created. You wouldn’t assume there’s a problem there, right? With so much policy making and investments focused on the short term, it can be refreshing to see evidence of what you can expect in the long term. But if we focus solely on whether children grow up to be “economically productive” adults, we miss out on all the changes they experience now, the effects this can have on their families and, ultimately, gaining an understanding of what really contributes towards maximising their life chances.

Previous return on investment analyses of Early Childhood Development projects often take a deductive approach: they empirically test hypotheses formulated before the activities are delivered. Our latest Social Return on Investment (SROI) research takes a different approach: it starts by talking to stakeholders in order to understand the outcomes they have experienced, before trying to measure them.

Unlike traditional cost-benefit analysis, SROI is an outcomes-based approach which maps the changes that matter most to each material stakeholder group. This allows decisions to be made based on areas deemed important by those affected by an intervention. This approach has the merit of measuring what matters to stakeholders, including outcomes that are hard to measure, rather than simply measuring what is easily quantifiable. It also aids an understanding of the sequence of changes that occur for each group, and what can help or hinder success. Our research found that “soft” outcomes, such as improved family and community relationships, are extremely valuable to stakeholders, often more so than so-called “hard” outcomes.

Our research, on behalf of ChildFund International, reminds us of the importance of SROI in understanding how incremental change happens, who experiences change and what that is worth. If we have to wait 20 years to find out if activities within families and communities delivers an economic gain, how can we know if it’s worth our investment for the next 15? Our research gives funders, ChildFund International and local delivery partners, a deeper understanding of the extent to which they are on track to deliver long term impact for children, families and communities.

We’re not discounting the importance of measuring longer term change, but calling for funders, delivery partners and those involved in policy to consider what’s important to stakeholders, how could those changes be measured, and what timescale is reasonable for understanding the success of an intervention.

To read more about our research on Early Childhood Development programmes in Ecuador see the report summary here or download the following documents: