What is ‘leverage’ (NGO-speak version) and why does it matter?

Last week I attended the twice yearly gathering of Oxfam GB’s big cheeses – the regional directors, Oxford bosses and a smattering of more exoticleverandfulcrum cheeses from other Oxfam affiliates (Australia and US this time). We started off with a tour of the regions –  what’s on their minds? 3 common themes emerged: political upheaval (disenchantment with elected governments,  protest, the threat of civil war); religious conflict (fundamentalism) and rising inequality.

The topic of this meeting was a classic new fuzzword – ‘leverage’. And like all good fuzzwords, it was frustrating and helpful in equal measure. Frustrating in its hard-to-define slipperiness, helpful because it establishes a fuzzy-boundaried arena of conversation that allowed us to have an interesting exchange.

The overriding purpose of leverage is another bit of management jargon: ‘going to scale’. How to influence bigger players to reach many times more people than you would do by acting alone? The ambition is heroic, perhaps crushing on occasion – with your few thousand (or even million) quid, it’s not enough to just help a few hundred people, you have to think how this can transform lives en masse. I suspect it partly stems from frustration born from aiming too low; partly from the push for results.

But it also comes from the excitement of seeing it work on the ground. I’ve talked previously about some of the best examples – convening and brokering in Tajikistan; campaigning to get megabucks out of governments for climate change (Philippines) or healthcare (Zambia); viral marketing to change attitudes on violence against women in South Asia. Social franchising (savings schemes in West Africa); piloting a new educational approach that is picked up by a national government (Vietnam); good old-fashioned research and advocacy on disabled people’s rights in Russia. This is a menu of approaches, more a way of thinking than a single recipe.

Leverage in practice is most developed in our work on influencing the state, whether on politics or expenditure, but some of the greatest enthusiasm actually comes from ‘livelihoods’ work – for example helping small farmers get into value chains for their products, and on decent terms.

One good sign – ‘leverage’ resonates with Oxfam staff on the ground (new fuzzwords usually make them groan). When we asked country programmes if they had some good examples of leverage, we got loads (including some of those I described earlier, and some new ones I will process in due course).

The concept also comes with some interesting tensions/contradictions. The term can easily mean ‘Oxfam doing something really big’, feeding the (alleged) megalomaniac tendencies of fund raisers and bosses alike. That’s not what we’re talking about (at least, not this time). Rather it’s getting to scale by acting as a catalyst, where smaller interventions may lead to bigger results (and conversely, having too big a budget to spend can actually be a problem, driving you towards service delivery rather than leverage). This is a more intelligent version of ‘doing more with less’.

Does leverage make you more or less able to respond to unexpected opportunities? On balance, I’d say the former – if you have lots of prior relationships with different types of individual and organization (a large and varied personal network is pretty essential for anyone doing leverage) – then it’s a lot easier both to find out when something unusual/important is happening, and to respond imaginatively with the right blend of people.

They could easily be working for Oxfam
They could easily be working for Oxfam

There are some risks. Existing partners may not like it (as I saw in Honduras). Going to scale without doing it all yourself implies surrendering a degree of control – how do you manage the brand risk if such an exercise goes off the rails and Oxfam gets the blame? Will donors fund something as uncertain and hard to predict? And of course, as with any half-intelligent approach, it is MEL-hell – What do you monitor? How can you plausibly attribute any change to your own actions, when you are just one minor player?

In practice, I think the consequence for the way aid agencies think is to introduce a shift towards automatically asking how any given intervention, partnership etc can have the maximum possible impact. Here’s where it bangs up against the increasing questioning of blueprints, best practice, cookie cutter solutions etc that I have written a lot about (and a concern I share). If every context is different, and every solution needs to be ‘best fit’ rather than ‘best practice’ how can you ‘go to scale’? Maybe that means focussing on building the enabling environment (transparency, accountability etc) rather than specific solutions. Or social franchising that can adapt to local circumstances. Any thoughts?

Oh and I also found out that Hungary has an Ombudsman for Future Generations – I really want that job (or at least the business card).


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9 Responses to “What is ‘leverage’ (NGO-speak version) and why does it matter?”
  1. Lula Belinfante

    I think in general ‘leverage’ is a good idea, but it depends how it transcends into reality. Nowadays implementation happens through local NGO partners who lack the capacity and infrastructure to leverage their projects. In many cases they struggle to ‘spend’ the money they have within the time frame and consequently end up spending funding on not very well thought out and ineffective interventions. The other problem is in some countries (such as Nepal) the diversity of castes and ethnicities are so broad that a one size fits all approach wouldn’t work, there is also a diversity in geography to consider which affects the way development interventions can be delivered.

  2. Leverage is a concept that helps think about how to make existing solutions bigger and better. It does not dictate a specific solution but points out ways to think about an issue, identifying concepts. The leverage we need is about ideas and the power to turn them into reality – not (only) a matter about money but about information, a realistic view on the specific social and natural environment, the freedom to act, and entrepreneurship.

  3. Robin

    A bleat. I am not fond of this use of the word “leverage”. More jargon. Can we not just say ‘getting more from, or for, or with, less’?

    I do have a substantive point. Is this not what BRAC is all about? Set up a pilot. Test it for effectiveness. If and when it works, start working on making it more efficient. Then scale it up, with constant testing and tweaking. By the time you are ready to scale up, you have something persuasive to show potential funders.

  4. P Baker

    I’m with Robin on this – if you mean ‘influence’ then just use that word – or ‘catalyze’. You surely can’t adopt such an overused word to mean something so specific as ‘influence to scale up’?

    In Spanish it translates to ‘palanca’ but often has a darker meaning, i.e. unfair influence, e.g. to secure a good job.

    I’m assuming too that you pronounce it to rhyme with ‘beverage’? I hate that!

  5. Luc

    Why groan? it’s just word describing in ‘engineering’ terms what it means to to reach many times more people than you would do by acting alone…

  6. Lan

    It’s a fuzzword alright for something that’s been there for a long time. But if that kind of language can help promote the kind of approach that multiplies the impact of whatever we do or creates ripples in what could sometimes be a totally unexpected new direction, then leverage it is. But are our eyes open enough to recognise the new, brave enough to try what we are unfamiliar with, confident enough to not be hung up about control?

    Speaking of control, funny that one of your images is the TV series where they set up and pull off a trick by being able to predict reaction and control the way a situation unfolds 🙂