Questioning impact: what if you find it lacking?

Luke Jordan

20 Mar 2019, 3 p.m.
Room CC9, Level -1 (Conference Centre)

What happens when a seemingly successful initiative starts to question its Theory of Change?

Grassroot is a non-profit technology start-up in South Africa. Its tools enable community organising and collective action via phones, with limited data requirements.

Launched in late 2015, it has now reached almost 250,000 people, almost 30,000 activities have been called through it, and is still today growing at 5-10% per month.

On the one hand, this has led to significant results. Grassroot has helped one of the largest social movements in South Africa grow from fourteen to fifty thousand members in a few years. It has helped national campaigns — for lower data prices or removing sales tax on sanitary pads — to engage with tens of thousands of people in previously unreached communities.

In a survey of 200 users, two thirds reported significant improvements in quality of life through more frequent collective action. However, the organisation itself has begun reflecting on whether its theory of change still holds. It has found through in-depth case studies that the tools are increasing the density of organising, but with questionable feed-through to the effectiveness of that action.

The tools jump-start or enable collective action, but that action often fractures internally due to structural conditions such as unemployment and a deeply unresponsive state. This, as Luke explores, poses deep questions for the theory of change of Civic Technology.