Workshop on ‘international development with lasting impact’

This workshop was presented by Professor Mark Reed. It was aimed at researchers at Edinburgh Napier University intending to apply for Global Challenges Research Funding. This post is based on my notes from the day, so the good things here are from Mark, and any mistakes are by me. Readers should also check out Mark’s Fast Track Impact website, especially the resources section. Mark can be contacted via or via @fasttrackimpact

In this post , the words ‘project’, ‘research’, and ‘researcher’ should be read as ‘GCRF-funded project’, ‘GCRF-funded research’ and ‘GCRF-funded researcher’. My post–facto comments are in block quotes. Click the thumbnail images to see full-size versions.

1 Agenda and contents of this post

The following is the agenda Mark circulated. As the workshop progressed, a few topics were tackled earlier than expected. The post follows that order.

Open Session 1: How to write a fundable GCRF application

  • Introduction: ODA compliant research – a new way of working
  • Discussion: what is impact – for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA)?
  • Presentation: How to write a fundable GCRF proposal
  • Discussion
  • Fast Track Impact GCRF resources

Open Session 2: Planning for impact

  • 5 ways ensure your GCRF research delivers impact
  • Identifying who might be interested in, benefit from or facilitate/block your research
    • Stakeholder analysis exercise (individually or in pairs)
    • Partnership building for future GCRF bids
  • Planning for impact: introduction to Fast Track Impact template and Theory of Change
  • What makes a good pathway to impact underpinning ODA in a GCRF proposal?

Masterclass 1: Evidencing impact

  • Impact tracking – sharing good practice
  • Design an impact evaluation (including small group exercise to design an evaluation)

Masterclass 2: Designing and facilitating meetings/workshops with partners & stakeholders

Designing and facilitating partnership meetings and workshops with stakeholders that are easy to facilitate, efficient and enjoyable.

2 What is impact?

Impact is the benefit of research. Hence it is not the pathways to impact, but what the research project will actually do for people and other beings. So impact is the aim that underpins research.

Hence researchers need to state the impacts they intend to create, i.e. the changes that should result from their research. These might be, for example, attitudinal changes. Ideally a project will have a range of impacts. To know what benefits should happen, researchers need to know

  • their goals (what the benefits will be)
  • the beneficiaries (who will benefit)
  • the pathway (how benefits will happen).

When planning a project, researchers should co-develop desired impacts with the proposed beneficiaries so that benefits are genuine. They should also be aware that there may be disbenefits or harm resulting from their research.

Another definition of research impact is ‘the good that researchers do in the world’. So researchers need to share their findings with others to increase their understanding of the issues they face. GCRF requires non-academic beneficiaries but not exclusively. That is, there can also be academic beneficiaries, for example training new researchers to enable further ‘worldly’ benefits.

2.1 Types of impact

Mark asked us to suggest the impacts our research should have. I suggested that my community council and participatory budgeting research should enable people to gain

  • increased access to/control over public funds relevant to them
  • increased engagement with the powers-that-be
  • increased social capital
  • increased financial capital.

Mark replied that increased ‘awareness and understanding’ impacts on their own are worthwhile but will not score highly with GCRF funders. They also need more tangible benefits such as ‘increased awareness and understanding, leading to better wellbeing, increased security, better decisions.

I realise that we can argue until the cows come home, make the dinner and repaint the ceiling about what ‘better decisions’ means.

Mark also advised that researchers should be realistic, so they should watch out for risks and assumptions in their funding proposals.  He noted that the GCRF funding panel accepts that nothing is guaranteed. My colleague Wegene Demeke suggested there could be impact on professional practice. Hence such researchers should gather early evidence (i.e. a baseline), then look for evidence of impact.

Figure 1: typology of impacts

Mark then suggested there is a typology of impacts, as in Figure 1. He added that if risks and disbenefits arise, researchers and colleagues should mitigate them, ameliorate them or simply decide whether they are a price worth paying for the benefits of the research.

3 About Overseas Development Assistance (ODA)

Figure 2: about ODA

ODA is about welfare and economic development impacts, as shown in Figure 2.

It requires ‘impact with a purpose’. GCRF reviewers need researchers to include numbers describing the problem and impacts they propose tackling, that is how many people face the problem and how many will benefit from the proposed impact(s). Non-human beneficiaries are acceptable to the review process but they should be framed in terms of benefits to humans. For example, if a project proposes investigating what benefits beavers, that alone isn’t GCRF-fundable. However, if it is framed as something like

benefitting beavers would mean they build more dams, leading to increased water-retention and hence better growing conditions for nearby farmers and reduced flooding downstream, leading to fewer illnesses and deaths and reduced financial costs of post-flood repair

the project would be fundable. Such projects can be framed in terms of the ecosystems services framework, i.e. as ‘natural capital’.

Surely reducing the value of nature to an economic value, as that framework apparently requires, is abysmal. It subordinates the universe to humanity, and implies, for example, that happy beavers are only worth as much as the powers-that-be are prepared to pay for them.


Mark later added he understands my distaste here but that a GCRF call linked to the Life on Land SDG, with clear biocentric goals in the call for proposals may fund research that is less anthropocentric.

4          How to write a winning proposal

The key elements of a GCRF project are shown in Figure 5. Any project should address one or more of the challenge areas:

  • equitable access to sustainable development
  • sustainable economies and societies
  • human rights, good governance and social justice.

Currently, GCRF isn’t aligned with UK aid objectives. However, this position may change.

To ensure success, applications must satisfy the development practitioner on the review panel, so the project gets a high ‘GCRF-relevance’ score. So it is advisable to find out who is on your panel.

It is acceptable for larger proportions of staff costs to go to UK researchers. This is partly because UK researchers tend to cost more than overseas researchers. (Mark later clarified that there is no set upper limit to funding for UK partners.  Projects with a high proportion of UK costs can be funded if such costs are justifiable.) However, UK staff-costs should not show ‘post-colonialism’

i.e. overseas people working to serve white massas

but should show credible evidence of why they are needed, e.g. for robust project management.

Other relevant parts of the GCRF strategy are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: GCRF strategy

The project team should be in place as soon as possible, because the windows for submitting applications are often very short. This includes getting ‘pre-reviewers’ (people who can comment on the likely success of an application, often dedicated research-support colleagues) in place. Pre-reviewers may also be non-academics. Another valid part of team-building is building capacity with colleagues who are relevant to DAC countries. This and other ‘strategic challenges’ are shown in Figure 4 below.


Figure 4: strategic challenges

Figure 5: two key elements of a GCRF proposal

More advice on this topic is contained in Mark’s book The Research Impact Handbook.

Researchers should be aware that certain sections of the media attack and belittle GCRF research. They should also be aware that they may challenge the powers-that-be.

According to a colleague, I will know my PB research is effective when I am ‘disappeared’ by Mr Bolsonaro.

5          Pathways to ODA compliance

(See also Figure 6 and Figure 7.)

Figure 6: pathways to ODA compliance (part 1)

Figure 7: pathways to ODA compliance (part 2)

Projects should

  • benefit ODA populations and DAC countries
  • state how many people are affected by the issue(s) addressed by the project
  • have well-written applications that are understandable to lay people, and be attractive to the development expert on the review panel
  • build capacity for research and development with in-country partners
  • demonstrate in-country partnerships based on prior work
  • build on existing R&D work
  • co-create systems, not impose them.

So the words ‘disseminate’ and ‘educate’ may be problematic, because they imply that the researchers know best and that that knowledge-transfer will be one way

from colonial master to unenlightened natives.

Readers should also check out the Fast track Impact Resources section.

5.1       Some process hints and tools

Important considerations include

  • empathy, so work with people, not on them
  • priorities, so work out what is important
  • building long-term, trusting, two-way relationships

These should be considered first before using the tools considered below. Proposals should be specific, for example, not ‘the government’ but ‘government team/department led by ’

5.1.1     Impact planning

Use the impact planning template ((Word | PDF | Figure 8 below) to create a plan for impact. (This includes a worked example.)

Figure 8: impact planning template

There need to be causal links between the project’s activities and the envisaged impacts, as shown in Figure 9. A full example, that took 3 months to create, is shown in Figure 10.)

Figure 9: theory of change

Figure 10: worked example

The example is apparently similar to a benefit dependency network.

5.1.2     Process options

The impact-planning process can be either bottom-up (Figure 11) or top-down (Figure12).

Figure 11: bottom-up impact planning

Figure 12: top-down impact-planning

Once the option has been chosen, researchers should go back to the impact planning template and make sure that every impact has at least one beneficiary and at least one pathway, that every beneficiary has at least one impact and at least one pathway, and that every pathway has at least one impact and at least one beneficiary. One simple way of doing this is

  1. state each beneficiary
  2. ensure there is at least one impact goal for each beneficiary
  3. ensure there is at least one activity leading to each impact goal.

Websites and twitter feeds often do nothing for in-country beneficiaries. (They may not have the know-how or facilities to access online resources, especially if they are written in English.) If this is true for the project being created, it’s hardly worthwhile bothering with them, and they certainly shouldn’t be seen as pathways to impact.

6          Monitoring and evaluation

6.1       Impact-tracking

Figure 13: worked example of impact-tracking template

It is crucial to capture all impacts as they occur. Researchers could use Mark’s impact-tracking template (Word | PDF | Figure 13). Researchers should use a tool that suits them and their colleagues to do this. Tools can be as simple as an email folder or a spreadsheet. However, Mark suggests that Evernote is an efficient tool.

It should be remembered that social media are only ever a pathway to impact, not impact itself. However social media metrics (e.g. number of hits from individual beneficiaries) can be used as evidence of impact

or that the pathway is being used – metrics can’t of themselves prove that people are benefitting from what they read online.

6.2       Evaluation

See also chapter 22 of the Research impact handbook. A definition of evaluation is given in Figure 14 and a way of using evaluation to demonstrate impact is given in Figure 16.

Figure 14: impact evaluation

Figure 15: using evaluation to demonstrate impact

Researchers will need to design their evaluation techniques. This is analogous to research design, which researchers should be good at anyway. Failing that, they should know colleagues who are good at it. Evaluation techniques have a spectrum of rigorousness, as shown in Figure 16:

Figure 16: spectrum of rigorousness

The techniques chosen must be believable.

7          Facilitating meetings and workshops with partners and stakeholders

It’s often valuable to hire a good facilitator, because this can prevent a lot of problems and costs. The facilitator should have high emotional intelligence. A good agenda is also needed.

One the biggest issues researchers might face is power-dynamics. Researchers should watch out for cliques and leaders. For example, cliques may well sit together. Leaders may sit at the head of their tables, appear more confident, be observed and obeyed by their ‘minions’, and may appear to say ‘impress me!’ by using their phones or laptops when researchers might hope they are paying attention. Researchers should be aware that body language and clothing are function of culture. (For example, a powerful person might choose to show rejection of convention by wearing a t-shirt when convention demands a suit and tie.

Researchers might think it worthwhile rejecting such power-dynamics but they should consider whether this will frustrate their pathways to impact. For example, it may not be possible to avoid the leader being the only speaker in any meeting he attends, but it should be possible to meet separately with his ‘subjects’. Alternatively, the researcher could intervene to allow the subjects to speak.

Another technique is co-devising rules at the start of a meeting. Then if anyone breaks them, the researcher can call on the moral support of the whole meeting to shut up a loudmouth. Alternatively, ranters can be asked to quiet down now by promising them a turn during ‘any other business’. Therefore meetings should have built-in contingency time. Participants can be asked to write down their ideas on a big sheet of paper on the wall before the meeting starts, so every topic is considered at an appropriate time.

If the facilitator messes up, the PI or senior researcher present should take over. He or she will have to take complaints anyway, so it is best to minimise these and keep the meeting on track by intervening as soon as it is necessary.

The facilitator or researcher should have a ‘bag of tricks’ (post-it notes, pens, etc) to enable rapid effective interventions.

When prioritising things, it may be helpful to use dotmocracy.



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