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Understanding the Context

Monday, Aug 13, 2018
by Humanitarian Institute

International Career

Designing social impact programs and projects does not occur in a vacuum. Balancing workloads, deadlines, systems, policies and life can result in shortcuts.

This is a reality. Particularly during program and project design.

Under time and resource pressure we jump to mapping a Theory of Change (at best) or get excited over activities and outputs (at worst).

This approach undervalues the complexity within which we are responding. And reduces the likelihood of achieving sustainable results. Can we continue to accept these risks?

2. Alumni

Change happens within

Its attitude and behaviour that matters most. Developing the knowledge and skills required is one thing, but nothing will change without the dedication and desire to improve.

For we know the current modus operandi is not sufficient. As such, we must choose to re-evaluate our priorities and recognise the importance of real contextual analysis in program design.


The beauty and complexity of what we do, is that no two challenges are alike. Nor is a problem the same in any two locations. Hence the challenge of taking social impact programs to scale.

Political constraints (internal and external); economic considerations; social variables – demography, literacy, management styles etc.; infrastructure and technology; legal and environmental issues all push and pull on social challenges and responses.

Engaging in and understanding of context through your ‘window’ of operations (mission, vision, strategic plan etc.) and influence - combined with critical analysis and reflection - allows for better comprehension of the issues and informs design.

This must be done deeply. As tokenistic analysis is redundant analysis.

Strengths, challenges, positive deviants... the lens must be broad enough yet still through your ‘window’. Otherwise data creep will overwhelm you and your team.

Then and only then can you move forward with design and developing an evidenced Theory of Change.

Without a contextual analysis you are programming based on opinion not fact. And while we’re all welcome to our opinions, we’re not welcome to our own facts.


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