Three lessons in tracking progress toward equity

July 12, 2023 by Bindiya Gillenwater Patel and Levis Nderitu

A year after launching PATH’s tool for tracking equity goals and a commitment to learn out loud, find out what lessons, insights, and surprises we encountered along the way.

PATH staff meet with colleagues at the Food Industry Development Supporting Laboratory in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: PATH/Minzayar Oo.

PATH staff meet with colleagues at the Food Industry Development Supporting Laboratory in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: PATH/Minzayar Oo.

One year ago, we launched the Equity in Programming Benchmarks, a tool that is enabling PATH to make and track progress toward our equity goals.

By self-assessing a proposal or project using the benchmarks, PATH teams first measure how each proposal or project performs against a set of indicators aligned with PATH’s four change strategies. And then, most importantly, staff identify how and where to improve our work, allowing PATH to be deliberate and proactive about achieving equity commitments.

With that initial announcement, we promised to learn out loud, with the idea to share what is working, and what isn’t working, with partners and peers along the way.

And now, a year later, with that commitment in mind, we are pleased to share our learnings. These insights come from interviews with nine teams who used the benchmarks, close review of benchmark assessments for 62 projects and proposals, and conversations with our regional coaches.

By making these lessons public information, we seek to keep ourselves accountable and also to invite your partnership as we continue in this journey toward equity.

Learning 1: Staff are energized about equity

Having driven change initiatives for more than 30 years between the two of us, we knew to expect some resistance when introducing a new tool and requirement for staff who are already very busy. But we were blown away by PATH staff’s commitment to equity and engagement with the benchmarks.

In the past year, 62 teams used the benchmarks to assess and strengthen their proposals or projects. We had eight regional coaches who offered well-received office hours, during which staff asked great questions. For instance, some wanted further insights into how the data would be used, while others asked for tips for better engaging their teams in the process.

Many teams took time to understand and analyze insights that arose from the benchmarks process. They discussed what a specific indicator meant to them, how different parts of a project are excelling, and where there was more work to do.

We also started introducing the benchmarks to dozens of partners and donors—and we were overwhelmed by their positive response and interest in hearing more.

Next steps: Some benchmarks users said they were pressed for time when the benchmarks were added to an already-packed team meeting agenda. With this feedback, we are encouraging teams to define standalone sessions where a few people can focus on the benchmarks within one month instead of spreading it out over the course of several months.

Learning 2: The benchmarks are useful at various project stages

Staff found the benchmarks to be useful across the life cycle of a project.

Some used the tool in their proposal stage to improve the initial design of the project. For instance, one project team engaged their entire partner consortium to complete the benchmarks at their annual work planning retreat.

Because this was a new tool, many of the pilot teams used it in the middle of their projects, when they had already established trust with their partners and donors. They found they could still make changes in their projects that would prove to be useful.

“In some ways, it would be great to have these benchmarks baked into the project design from the start. But in other ways, it's helpful that we are in the middle of a project and have already established some level of trust with the funder. We have shown that we can deliver on their priorities, [so] it's easier to negotiate with them and say, hey, we need to make space for this," said Brianna Musselman from PATH's Technical Assistance Platform project.

Finally, other teams were using the benchmarks as a closing out exercise—though they no longer made changes to that project itself, the reflections were used to design follow-on work.

Next steps: Some people suggested requiring the benchmarks assessment to take place at the proposal stage, as that is when it would add the most value. Because the proposal phase can be busy, with tight deadlines and limited time, we are hesitant to do so, but we are encouraging teams to build in time as early in the process as possible.

Learning 3: These shifts require intention and time

In this first year of rolling out the benchmarks, our staff came up with great ideas for improving their projects based on their benchmarks results. Now they are talking with partners, country stakeholders, and funders to develop an action plan and incorporate the changes into projects.

Figure 1 shows just a few of the changes that our project teams intend to make.

Figure 1. Changes proposed by six projects to improve equity.

Figure 1. Changes proposed by six projects to improve equity.

We were happy to hear from our teams that the benchmarks and indicators were easy to understand, so we did not need to make any changes to the framework since the initial launch. Many found the benchmarks appendix, which contains examples and suggestions for improvements, especially helpful. And unsurprisingly, PATH staff want more! People wanted to see more details from strong projects, more examples of how people are making changes, and more transformative approaches to equity in health, focusing on community priorities, respectful partnerships, and inclusive innovation.

Next steps: Now that we are through the first year, we are focusing on maintaining long-term engagement in and commitment to the process. We will be working with our coaches and leaders to establish a regular cadence for checking in on progress, perhaps through annual updates. This will seek to ensure that we are truly implementing some of the ideas for improvement. And we plan to share more of the ideas that emerge in the benchmarks appendix, at conferences, and through publications.

Like we said last year, we want you to join us on this journey toward equity. You can do so by:

Adey Fentaw, Brianna Musselman, Jenny Shannon, Kyra Arnett, and Vajra Allan contributed to this article.