Impact Case Study – When Doing Good Is Easier, Why Focus On Doing Better?

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Exploring how Lefa La Rona Trust together with the Alchemy Community Development Trusts and Non-Profit Company strengthened their focus on transformative change at a community level

We can define most responses to social problems as intending to do good, however, that does not equate to doing better. To do better requires a conscious act of prioritising limited resources to achieve the greatest capacity to benefit.

When focused on doing better you are aiming to strengthen a community’s collective agency to ultimately place its current members and future generations in the best position to freely direct their futures.

For over a decade the Alchemy Community Development Trusts and Non-Profit Company have been growing their experience in how to ensure communities as a whole benefit from their work and not just a select few individuals.

What is becoming clear is that we need to be more active in understanding how to counteract local challenges in addition to helping communities access the resources that are most likely to contribute to longer-lasting and more transformative change.


  • Most funders and partners follow an approach that focuses on doing good on an individual level as opposed to doing better on a community level.
  • Doing better implies being part of a process that prioritises a community’s limited resources to achieve the greatest capacity to benefit those affected by a particular problem.
  • Focusing on sustained and transformative change on a community level requires adopting strategies that engage better with messy and difficult-to-solve social problems.
  • A key tool for Alchemy has been to develop Interactive Community Profiles that look at specific communities using insights organised within a community life course. These insights reflect technical knowledge, intent, and the point-of-view of those directly affected by a positive change.


The community-development space has a multitude of organisations that follow an equally diverse number of ways to achieve their goals. This complexity is often simplified into communities with needs, funders with resources, and implementing partners with the know-how and local capacity to address those needs.

Many organisations operate within this simplified view of development taking up the role of either a funder or implementing partner. Looking beyond what organisations think or say they do– the underlying relationship is mostly a transactional one between funder and partner. This aside, organisations generally follow a legitimate intent to do good, which when measured at the individual level, often supports reasonable claims of creating a positive outcome. Using a soft definition of impact, these outcomes are frequently repackaged and communicated as significant social achievements. In the long run, this creates a win-win scenario where communities and partners are seen to benefit, and funders can report their commitment to community development.

The wrinkle for Alchemy in following such an approach is its founder’s stipulation that it must deliver real benefits to communities, not individuals. This implies that Alchemy must work towards facilitating longer-term and sustained transformative change within a specific community of approximately 5,2 million people. A task made more difficult by the many wicked social problems present in these communities, which do not respond well to neat off-the-shelf ideas.

Over time as the Alchemy family matured, the Trusts and NPC increasingly sought to find a fit-for-purpose approach that could meet their challenge to be an impact-orientated community partner. Unfortunately, when Alchemy reached out to others with a similar mission it became clear that few organisations actively seek to operate at a transformative level, choosing instead to remain in the easier role of funders of good causes, which typically benefit only a few when compared to the number affected. This dilemma set Alchemy on a journey to find a more robust means to deliver on its mandate of creating ‘sustainable and thriving communities, through and beyond mining’.


It may at first seem odd to say that organisations within the community-development space do not focus on transformative change given that most exist to make a positive social change. The reason for this becomes rather self-evident when applying a more robust definition of impact and measures of meaningful change.

When applying a Social Return on Investment (SROI) method at a community level to measure impact there are some unavoidable and often inconvenient prerequisites. Broadly speaking these highlight how many of those affected are included in an initiative (coverage), if the approach can produce the desired change (efficacy), and finally that those affected are actually benefitting (access and meaningful value).

Consider funding a project that helps one school with 300 children achieve exceptional educational outcomes resulting in national press attention for the impact the project has had on those children. What is not raised is that the area is home to 250 000 school-age children who attend 230 schools. There will be very little impact on the wider school community unless the project is scaled to include most schools, which is often unlikely with flagship projects. While this does not diminish what was achieved for the individuals involved, it does illustrate that doing good is functionally easier than doing better– if doing better is a measure of increasing a community’s capacity to benefit from its resources as a whole.

Some may be quick to point out that limited resources limit the means. This often-used argument seems valid until one takes a closer look at how ineffectual cherry-picking behaviours are relative to the change required for real-world problems. In a nutshell, such behaviours trim problems down to either fit a given interest or budget irrespective of the nature of the problem. This problem is further compounded by a heavy reliance on causal assumptions to extrapolate a greater benefit that may but often is not realised.

For example, we have funding sufficient for a series of entrepreneur workshops, these workshops will produce several entrepreneurs who in turn will employ locals reducing unemployment and the social impact of poverty. Six months later none of those who attended the workshops has been able to start given that the project failed to account for the many challenges faced in starting up a business.

Transformative change inherently requires changes to “what” is done as opposed to focusing on the existing “how”. As such, when looking at realising a mandate for sustained transformative change at a community level the response must reflect what can be done differently within the messy reality of real-world problems. On balance, if existing activities and partner programmes delivered the required outcomes, there would not be a need to change what is being done.

Fortunately, Alchemy could turn to several proven tools and practices to help it engage with these messy and difficult-to-solve problems as well as to progressively realise the change at scale.


Alchemy Boards are tasked with compiling a well-grounded situational analysis for their respective communities. Given its principal role in directing their work, the approach taken in this analysis must provide clarity on which actions are most likely to be both sustainable and transformative. Utilising a number of better practices from Systems and Design Thinking together with an organising framework based on a Life-Course Approach, Alchemy developed its first set of ground-breaking Interactive Community Profiles (ICPs).

These ICPs allow Alchemy as well as partners to better understand a local community’s life course based on three critical insights, namely relevant technical knowledge (data and research), the intent of national, provincial, and local actors (legislation, policies and strategic plans), and the point-of-view of those directly affected by a problem and how to meaningfully improve their experience.

Scale and the progressive realisation of a transformative social impact, in other words, the what and the how, were addressed within a means and resource plan, which in turn would inform the annual, medium- and long-term operational plans of the Trusts and NPC.



Historic and sticky transactional behaviours must evolve to create space for doing better

For organisations that are part of communities with longstanding funding relationships and behaviours, it can be difficult to overcome the sticky appeal of naming quick projects that are marketed as doing good. Community leaders and implementing partners alike may find the new focus disruptive and less appealing, especially if their own performance is judged by projects rather than longer-term outcomes. While agreeing in principle to the value of pursuing transformative change, there are many ways reluctant adopters can derail the approach including trying to repackage or defend existing projects, questioning why a funder should be active in describing a community problem, claiming it will take too long to see tangible outcomes, despite many initial interventions being part of the progressive realisation of the desired change.

Organisational competencies must shift

Grant managers are typically efficient at managing projects. Focusing on transformative change shifts the focus from project management to systems that describe a human experience and develop with those directly affected a means of changing that experience. This changes managerial roles from passive oversight to being active in promoting open problem-solving. As a result, engagement evolves from finding once-off projects to collaborating on multiple interlocking interventions tied to a clear development trajectory.

Both acknowledge and respectfully question authoritative partner ideas

Often funders defer without question to local authoritative partners. While it is true that local partners may have good insights into a community problem this does not automatically imply that their ideas are best suited to address that problem. For example, government departments and municipalities are seen as authoritative partners whose ideas simply need funding, yet it is often their poor performance that is at the heart of the problems being addressed. A more constructive relationship would be to encourage acknowledging that there are both multiple sources of knowing as well as a diversity of ideas around a problem and that working within an open problem-solving process will ultimately improve the quality and effectiveness of planned interventions. Put another way, prioritise building knowledge of a community over adopting pre-determined ideas.

Be more specific about affected communities

Communities are often treated as homogenous groups living in a specific area, for example, the youth of Gert Sibande District. However, problems within communities are experienced in more granular ways by a specific group of people– referred to as the specific ‘who’ in human-centred design. For example, unemployed out-of-school youth are not a well-defined group from the perspective of a specific ‘who’. Unemployed young women with post-school qualifications have different employment experiences than young men who have not completed school. In brief, understanding the specific ‘who’ allows for the development of interventions that have actions more relevant to change and the actual lived experiences in a community as opposed to a blanket fix. Therefore, for Alchemy and others that are tasked to work within a specific geographic community, it is helpful to frame the capacity to benefit within a specific affected community. From experience, while there may be significant overlap between the needs of those affected the interventions designed in this way are more well-rounded, robust and accessible for those affected.

Lefa La Rona Contact: Mr. Reza Bardien

Case Study Author: Dr Andrew Crichton

Impact Case Studies

Interactive Community Profiles