What is ‘leverage’? Anatomy of a fuzzword

A few of us were asked recently to unpack one of this year’s fuzzwords – leverage. A fuzzword is a buzzword, but fuzzier – all things to allleverage1 people etc. So here’s what we came up with – not final, work in progress etc.

Leverage is working strategically with others in a ‘clever’ way, in order to lever a bigger change than we could ever achieve on our own. It depends on developing a rich web of mutually beneficial relationships and alliances at country, regional and global level. Leverage emerges out of that connectivity.

The starting point is strong, dynamic networks

As far as possible, we need to know people and earn their trust before trying to leverage their involvement.

This means being part of a complex, interdependent and dynamic web of relationships. In this network there are two-way flows of tangible benefits such as funding, revenue, insurance as well as two-way flows of intangible benefits such as knowledge, access to ideas, credibility, influence, real-time data, client/beneficiary perspectives, market information, ability to mobilise large numbers of people, etc.

Such networks may include government departments, specialist INGOs, local networks, local NGOs, private sector businesses, high profile figures, academic institutions and, of course, community members and leaders.

For example, in Oxfam’s work on olive oil in Palestine we have links with the Coady institute in Canada who are world leaders in market facilitation approaches; we have significantly deepened our cooperation with proficient local partners who now work as a single programme team; we have built working relations at all levels with the Palestinian Authority; we have supported the establishment of cooperatives for women and men and are creating autonomous farmers’ federations. We have developed links with the private sector in country, in the Gulf and in Europe and we have used research to deepen our knowledge of the sector and the market. This network is creating the conditions for change that go beyond benefits for a limited number of direct beneficiaries to affect whole olive oil sector.

This approach is not new. For decades Oxfam has been building trust and linkages with a wide range of actors from village to global level in order to combat injustice and poverty.

A leverage approach means we must systematically strengthen these networks at all levels. Leverage is about being far sighted as to what we want to achieve, clear sighted and strategic about who will do it and especially, astute about understanding what kind of actions will create the alliances and momentum we need in order to bring about the big changes we seek.

A menu of approaches: 10 ways to exert leverage

The following approaches fall along  a spectrum from innovative to ‘business as usual’. In practice, approaches are likely to combine more than one of these categories. The list is not exhaustive – there are bound to be other variants

1. Leverage through convening/brokering

Bringing a wide range of actors together to work collaboratively within their shared interest


2. Leverage through new modality

Introducing a new business model, new technology or new delivery mechanism to reach greater numbers for lower cost


3. Leverage through exploiting global capability

Maximising the knowledge, networks, know how, systems and reach across Oxfam GB and the confederation to bring significantly more value to key stakeholders


4. Leverage through advocacy

Pressing for duty bearers to take up their responsibility to act, e.g. to provide services, enforce laws, (Covers spectrum from insider (research -> advocacy) to outsider (public campaign))


5. Leverage through peer-to-peer adoption

Supporting the spread of new community or household level models and techniques to neighbouring villages and districts. One method is social franchising (making it clear to others how to copy what you’ve done. Another is frugal innovation (making it purposefully cheap for others to copy or scale what you’ve done)


6. Leverage through replication

Developing an effective model that is then adopted and adapted by other organisations or government institutions


7. Leverage through pyramid selling approaches, for example to change public attitudes

leverage 2Training one group of people who then commit to reach out to and train others, with the expectation that this will continue to grow.


  • We Can End Violence Against Women campaign

8. Leverage through building capacity

Building capacity of key organisations/departments and their staff in government, private sector or NGOs via training, study tours, internships and exchanges

9. Leverage through releasing community potential

Catalysing the effective organisation and use of the physical, natural, cultural, financial, political, institutional and creative assets that are present in communities


10. Leverage through ‘grow and go’

Growing independent organisations that go and take on their own life either by creating incubation space for emerging organisations or by spinning off projects into new organisations


Feel free to critique, suggest new categories, add examples (plus links) etc


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7 Responses to “What is ‘leverage’? Anatomy of a fuzzword”
  1. Leslie Morris-Iveson

    Communication in international development is difficult. We often say we need to use less jargon and buzzwords are a constant irritant. I personally think the use of words, like “leverage” can be very excluding and puts English speaking professionals at an advantage, and as usual people who speak english as a second, third, fourth etc language are once again at a disadvantage – as a native english speaker it took even myself a while to fully understand what people are trying to get across when using this word.
    Nevertheless its a very important concept – and this type of outline is very useful.

    “How do we do leverage” is now a constant question.
    As a development professional with a “specialization” (in water)I think its important to point out that “leverage” is about influencing externals, people in Ministries, change makers who form policies. From my experience as one of the people involved in the Tajikistan project Duncan mentions (through brokering and convening) is having a background in the sector you are trying to influence often built up over many years of experience in similar projects, a professional background, an ability to engage in thought leadership and speak the language of the sector. Unfortunately the word “technical expertise” is another much-maligned word, and I think if we really want to do leverage we need to get over this.

  2. To muddy the waters a little, the word “leverage” is also used in a different (political) sense, effectively as a synonym for influence. Saying that somebody has leverage with a particular organisation or decision maker, etc. means they have influence over that organisation, etc.

    Also, I wonder whether by managing to include so much under the umbrella of “leverage”, you’re at risk of making the word meaningless. Leverage as everything-but-direct-service-delivery.

    But perhaps my distaste for the word comes from the time I spent with WaterAid some years ago, when “levered beneficiaries” were all the rage. It was an attempt to justify and encourage a wider range of approaches than just direct service delivery (by making the comparison in impact more explicit). But for me it turned “beneficiaries” into an even more ugly word, denying agency twice over, and accentuated the weakness of focussing on a single trump card indicator that overruled all else.

  3. I tend to think of leverage as being political, first and foremost. One person or organisation wants another person or organisation to do something/change something/give them something, and they either have something the other person wants/needs, or they have something to hang over the other’s head. Influence, as Mtega points out, is part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Put crudely, leverage is often about bribery vs. blackmail. It implies an uneven relationship – the one who is levering has more power. Without power, they’d have no leverage. They may use that power entirely for good, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that power is unevenly distributed.

    It’s why I’m struggling as well with some of the categories, such as ‘leverage through replication’. How do you actually exert leverage through replication? You can influence, by demonstrating the value of a particular intervention, but is that leverage?

  4. David

    Echoing the other comments, Duncan, this usage of leverage seems to illustrate your definition of fuzz word – it means everything and nothing. Hard to imagine the idea of a non-leveraged project other than as a bad project.

    Leverage is a measure of the ability to cause another party to act. It’s about power, and particularly about finding sources of power that one doesn’t have in order to get a decision out of a decision-maker. Many of the examples here might be about leverage, but we need to know why the given approach provided influence over a given decision-maker that was otherwise unavailable.

    Plenty of good programming including advocacy does not involve getting leverage – just accomplishing good work, doing solid research, etc. If your definition of leverage doesn’t include that possibility, then it is just a synonym for “effective” or “good”.

  5. Ian de Villiers

    The simple definition at the beginning works well: working strategically with others in a ‘clever’ way. But there is always a question about what is wisdom there and how to make sense of the complexity. We’ve been wondering about that a lot. Here’s an invitation (unashamed plug!) to join in: a chance to get together with academics in Oxford, July 14-16 figuring out just that. Conference title,”the Collaborative Economy”, at the 21st Multi-Organisation, Partnerships, Alliances and Networks conference. There will be a track on local development issues and multistakeholder processes and we’re open for papers. Also other highly relevant tracks. Check it out at http://www.MOPAN2014.info.