How does IIED seek to make a difference?

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24 April 2017

IIED director Andrew Norton reflects on how the organisation delivers its mission, drawing on the findings of an independent external review.

Partnership and participation are central to IIED's work: this exchange visit organised with our partners in Nepal allowed community foresters to share their experiences with civil society activists from the Lao PDR. (Photo: IIED)

Since I took over as director of IIED in mid-2015 I've often been asked "how does IIED make a difference in the world?", and "what are IIED's distinct characteristics?".

There's a real danger of hubris in claiming to be unusual or unique, but I've come to recognise particular skills and ways of working that IIED has in common with many of the partner organisations and networks with which we collaborate in our efforts to deliver on our mission "to build a fairer, more sustainable world using evidence, action and influence in partnership with others".

A recent comprehensive independent review of IIED's work has brought these reflections into focus. The reviewers emphasise that the organisation's particular strengths lie as much in our ways of working as in the specific environment and development issues we address, or the types of outputs we produce:

IIED does not take the classic route of most policy think tanks that seek to affect policy change by studying policy options and providing expert advice to policymakers. IIED believes that policy change is not a rational and linear process. Instead it emerges from many different angles of influence and different types of knowledge creation and use, in which practical and experience-based knowledge creation is as valuable as scientific research. In short, creating space for voice and participation and tackling the policy environment is as much an essential part of IIED's strategy as is conducting policy research and providing expert advice. – external review 2017

How the organisation works is at least as important as what it does. As a relative newcomer to IIED, I recognise this description of how IIED aspires to work, but it is extremely challenging to achieve and maintain a high quality of work using complex and multiple channels to influence.

I'd like to pick out four areas where IIED has a strong ethos, and outline some of the current issues we face as well as the future opportunities each contains.

Working in collaboration

First, we work in collaboration with organisations and individuals in developing countries, and endeavour to give equal attention to their priorities as well as our own. This investment in the agency of Southern civil society organisations is one reason why IIED has chosen not to open subsidiary offices in the South: we believe this would risk turning us from a partner to a competitor for many of the organisations we cooperate with.

Over time the nature of these relationships has changed. Partner organisations look to us less for advice and expertise, and more as a convenor and connector who can help them to use their knowledge and legitimacy more effectively. We can link them with others creating opportunities for shared learning and combined impact.

Many of the Southern civil society organisations we work with face growing pressure from a shrinking public space for independent thinking and voice, and huge uncertainty and disruption to their operating environment. We are doing our job well if collaboration with IIED increases their capacity to operate effectively and to make progress towards their longer-term strategies and priorities.

Evidence and analysis

Second, IIED is driven by strong values. We believe that evidence and analysis are key components in the toolkit for advocating for change that benefits poor and marginalised people and the environment.

As the review notes, we look to bring practical and experience-based knowledge into policymaking, as well as more academically-recognised forms of research. That is why we make our work available free of charge online.

We also work closely with practitioners and non-academic experts and ensure that their expertise is fully acknowledged. That is why so many of the authors of IIED's publications are based in developing countries, and why we welcome blogs written by partners.

Not for profit

Third, IIED is a not-for-profit organisation. We are not answerable to shareholders, or obliged to levy a percentage of our income to pay dividends. Our staff are the organisation's greatest asset, so we strive to create a positive working environment and to recognise their expertise and dedication fairly – but we also ensure that salaries and conditions are benchmarked against others working in similar organisations, so that we keep our costs at reasonable levels.

We monitor, review and revise our costs carefully to make sure that IIED represents good value for money for the range of governments, foundations, private companies and philanthropies that support our work. A crucial element of IIED's definition of 'value' is the principle of fairness, so in addition to aiming for efficiency, economy and effectiveness in our work, we also strive to be equitable and transparent in all our dealings.

Making a tangible difference

And finally, IIED's work aims to make a tangible difference for poor and marginalised people, and for the environment. The external review illustrates our 'theory of change' (see the diagram below) and the choices IIED makes in planning and delivering our work.

Diagram showing IIED's evaluative theory of change
We are publishing this independent external review of IIED's performance over the last five years, and our management response to the findings. We will feed what we have learned from that exercise into our internal results framework, along with the feedback from our recent stakeholder survey.

Our results framework provides a comprehensive picture of our work and will help us to ensure that we remain fully focused on delivering our mission in the most effective way possible.  We remain committed to achieving the strongest possible impact, in line with our aims of promoting social and environmental justice from the local to the global level through our work.

We hope that sharing these instruments for learning and improvement will be helpful for others, and we would welcome feedback from other organisations who are making similar efforts to set out their theories of change, and then put them into practice.

Andrew Norton (andrew.norton@iied.org) is director of IIED.

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