How well do you know your beneficiary group?

How well does your intervention match your beneficiary group?

When we’re working in the impact space, our solutions, resources and programmes are often the key focus of our work. It’s where the funding goes and it’s often what defines success. But with so much focus on our solutions and results, we often forget step 1 and that is truly understanding the group of people we’re here to support.

The danger, of not taking the time to learn and listen deeply to you beneficiary group, could be radical. It could lead to wasted funds and materials, frustrated employees, disappointed (and sometimes even further disadvantaged) beneficiaries, weak impact and grumbling funders. We’ve got to learn to listen to those on the ground and allow them to reveal to us, what they need and what matches them.


Homework Classes: Not a Match

In a small town in Kwa-Zulu Natal, a group of student teachers were overwhelmed by their Grade 8 and Grade 9 learners failing to pass their tests, exams and the school term. In this poor, public school, many of these learners spent afternoons or lunch breaks in detention for not doing homework, for not submitting assignments and for producing poor results. The school also started locking the gates at 08h15 to gather the consistent latecomers outside and distribute penalties before allowing them to go to their classes.

The teaching students got permission from the principal to host home-work support classes in the school hall after school every day. For an hour every afternoon, they facilitated extra classes, tutoring and assisted the learners with their homework. For the first two weeks, the school hall was buzzing and the student teachers were excited by such strong attendance. However, the positive response didn’t last and the learners gradually stopped attending these interactive and well supported afternoon sessions. The student teachers were disappointed and perplexed. So what happened?


Beneficiary Profile

A for-profit business spends plenty of time and resources into understanding their market and customer. Without a thorough customer profile; understanding how their customers think, behave, buy, consume, interact and return for more, a business is putting their profit at risk. It’s quite crazy that many NPOs and NGOs do not follow similar procedures for their own beneficiaries to ensure maximum and sustainable impact.

Where do I start?

There are several questions that we need to try and answer about our beneficiary group. For this articles purpose, we’ll collectively call our beneficiary profile Wethu – a Grade 8 or Grade 9 learner at the school. Let’s dig a little deeper into Wethu’s profile. These questions need to be answered in context to his school life:

  1. What does Wethu think?
  2. What does Wethu feel?
  3. What does Wethu experience in his immediate surroundings every day?
  4. What is Wethu’s pain?
  5. What influences Wethu?
  6. What does Wethu believe?
  7. How does Wethu behave?
  8. What are Wethu’s values?
  9. What would make Wethu’s life easier?

When you start exploring the answer to these question, I suggest using a mind-map, as the answers to these questions are complex and interconnected.

Now that we have an idea of what to ask, it’s about how to find the answers without assuming them.

  • Be intentionally observant.
  • Interactive, carefully designed and facilitated workshops/dialogues – with children, this will need permission from parents/guardians. Ensure the activities also match your group and spend a significant amount of time building trust within the group before you start.
  • Semi-structured interviews – allow for flexibility with open-ended questions and your own follow-up questions. Don’t worry about sticking to the script.
  • Avoid multiple choice questions – although easy to capture, they limit true thoughts and responses.
  • Avoid leading questions – try and be conscious of whether your question is leading or preempting a response eg. ‘Do you want a homework class?’ This question is already giving them your solution and they will most likely say ‘yes’ and it may sound like a great idea – but it doesn’t mean it’s what they need. Rather ask, ‘Why do you struggle with your homework?’ or ‘What would make school easier for you?’. These questions are open and are not pushing for a specific answer. It’s surprising what comes up when we do not plant seeds for our answers. Especially from children.
  • Monitoring & Evaluation – track your work, results and impact and engage with your beneficiaries on a regular basis regarding your intervention. We’ll often need to make some changes, big or small, to get the match right.

Most importantly, it’s important to remember that no beneficiary is a silo. There are external groups and a whole community as an influence that we need to consider – in this case, parents & teachers.

Wethus Profile 1024x576


What went wrong?

After some investigation, the student teachers learnt that the learners walked for an hour, if not more, to and from school. And when they got home, many had to do house chores and look after younger siblings. In severe cases, the home was child-headed with no parents or grandparents and dependants that needed looking after.

In the great picture of their daily lives, although education was valued, homework could never be prioritised due to home situations and distance


What is the new solution?

The student teachers, school teachers and principal decided to not give the children homework during the week and only a little bit on the weekend and ensure every class was active and well structured to ensure work was covered and practiced during school time.

They are also looking at getting funding for two school busses to cut down the learners travel time.

Eliminating homework may have initially been an unimaginable option, as our school system emphasises great value on learners taking school work home. However, our school system also wasn’t designed in Africa for African children and there so many alternatives to create an effective learning environment.

Taking the time to truly understand the learners and their daily circumstances brought unimaginable solutions to light. Rather than continued discipline and failing results, learners started spending less time in detention and instead, they were outside with their friends. A significant shift was noticed in their attitude towards school and doing well and once there’s a mindset change – so much is possible!

So remember to invest plenty of thought, energy and time into really understanding your beneficiaries. Map everything that influences them, directly and indirectly. You’ll be surprised by what comes out of this process and it often changes the face and structure of your interventions – as it should.


Reproduced with permission from: 


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