Tracking BvLF's accomplishments

By Lisa Jordan, Executive Director, 6 February 2013

Since we completed our programme strategies in 2010/2011 the issue of tracking our impact has been at the top of our minds at the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The program team has developed key impact indicators from over 80 baseline research studies. These key impact indicators will allow us to track our progress over the next few years. In conjunction with Bertelsmann Foundation, the European Foundation Center and others BvLF is designing a new capacity building workshop for the European foundation sector on moving from good to great philanthropic practice. The Good to Great workshop will take place in June in Copenhagen at the European Foundation Center’s General Assembly meeting. The communications team is producing our annual report for 2012, the first since we adopted our new goals in which we can report preliminary results on creating greater opportunities for learning and growing in healthy and safe spaces. 

To understand the impact a foundation can have, however, it is also useful to periodically take a retrospective look at the interventions. Over the course of 2012 as BvLF phased-out of many countries we hired a team of independent researchers to assess whether we have fulfilled the objectives of our mission. Four independent researchers and one retiring staff person delved into our archives, interviewed hundreds of people and surveyed others to find out how BvLF had impacted children’s opportunities in Kenya, Poland, Germany and Colombia.  The resulting report, “Learning from Experience: Lessons for Philanthropy” (executive summary only), has taught us much about our own long term approaches to supporting young children, and given us a sense of the Bernard van Leer legacy of which we can be proud. 

According to the research team, in Kenya BvLF created a nationwide infrastructure for early learning, in essence taking on the role of the state, and then handing it back to the Government of Kenya. In the early 1970’s when BvLF arrived in Kenya there was no formal training in early childhood development. Today, every post-secondary institution provides an early childhood certificate and Kenyatta University awards a PhD in Early Childhood Education. BvLF in conjunction with partners, also convinced the World Bank to make their first loan for early childhood education in Africa (almost $30 million) resulting in 60% coverage for young children.  A similar story can be told about the interventions in Poland where working with the Comenius Foundation helped to extend quality educational opportunities to rural areas of Poland, along with securing government support for the sector. As noted by Teresa Ogrodzinska, from the Comenius Foundation “the Bernard van Leer Foundation support was like a golden seed which allowed [the] Comenius Foundation to grow, develop and become maybe not a big, but stable, tree with many strong branches which disseminates their knowledge and practice broadly among parents, teachers, educators, NGOs, local and national government leaders, academic and politicians, helping to create [a] better developmental environment for children.”

In Colombia and Germany the foundation concentrated its efforts on socially marginalised children.  Working with partners we have been fortunate to change educational paradigms on democracy and diversity in Germany and extend the reach of locally-anchored early childhood programmes to young children in Colombia who bore the brunt of violence and volatility in that country. 

Learning from Experience has also helped us understand how we can improve our practice. While our philanthropic toolbox is reported by the research team to be one of the most robust in the sector, some of the tools within it could be sharper. Our theories of change, for example, were often too simplistic to ensure sustainability and scale. Our data collection was inconsistent over the decades; and crucially, the question of how to withdraw from a country should have been thought about at an earlier stage. These are all areas the foundation is working to improve. We are very grateful to the team of researchers that have helped us understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we invite you to read their report.


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