The importance of a client-centred approach for working in the social sector

I’ve been working in the social purpose sector for almost 10 years now, and I’ve often reflected on how the distance that comes with being a consultant can be one of its greatest weaknesses, or its greatest strengths.

As consultants, we aren’t at the coalface doing the complex, emotionally demanding, day-to-day work of supporting people to overcome disadvantage. So there’s a risk that sometimes we miss key details and don’t appreciate what’s really important.

I recently had the privilege of working with Indigenous social purpose organisation Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, or KJ, which caused me to reflect on the importance of listening carefully and remaining humble in order to turn that separation into a strength.

KJ is a Martu organisation that was established in 2005 to protect Martu culture and help build sustainable Martu communities. The Martu people are the traditional owners of a large part of the Western Deserts in Western Australia. They were some of the last Indigenous people to come into contact with European Australians in the 1950s and 1960s. Some Martu elders remember living their traditional way of life on their Country before meeting any ‘whitefellas’.

Map of Martu
Map of Martu native title area. Credit: Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa.

The impact of this contact was monumental for Martu people. In the space of a generation, the Martu people went from living with the governance structures, kinship systems and lore that they had developed over 60,000 years, to living in the completely different society of modern colonised Australia.

The impact of colonisation was significant. While Martu people, with the support of KJ, have worked hard to preserve their culture and way of life, incarceration rates remain high and health and education outcomes are poor.  Addressing the root causes of these problems means working with the police, magistrates, lawyers, companies and policy-makers to change the laws, policies, attitudes and funding streams that have a significant influence over outcomes for Martu people.

This is what the Martu Leadership Program (MLP) does. The MLP is a program of KJ and World Vision Australia (WVA) that aims to equip young Martu men and women with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to shape a new future for Martu people. This involves doing coursework on company law, the legal system, government and finance; attending meetings and giving presentations to conferences, companies and government; and study trips around the country.

Understanding the value of Martu leadership

SVA Consulting’s role was to conduct an evaluation of the MLP – to understand, measure, value and articulate what changes the MLP had achieved for Martu people and others – so that KJ and WVA could demonstrate this impact to government and funders, in order to allow the program to continue beyond its pilot phase.

This was a large and exciting challenge for us. How do you begin to understand or measure the value of leadership, resilience or empowerment for young Martu people? Especially as a non-indigenous consultant from Melbourne?

We used the Social Return on Investment (SROI) method which involved designing a theory of change that identified the MLP’s outcomes and included analysing program records, reflections and feedback, and interviewing program participants. This helped us to understand, measure and value the most important changes that the MLP had created for both Martu and other stakeholders – including government and the legal system.

Scale of change and impact

It’s hard to overstate the scale of change created over the three years of the program, as discovered through interviews with the MLP participants, at the beginning and the end of the program. The growth in confidence and knowledge among the group of governance issues and the criminal justice system was remarkable.

One participant expressed a new comprehension of the criminal justice system and a new feeling of agency like this:

‘Most of us used to sit back and let the lawyer talk. Now I don’t have to worry about the lawyer; the lawyer is there to support me. I never asked one of the lawyers anything before; now I found out lawyers there to help.’

For another program participant, the MLP helped them to understand the governance reality of the system in which they worked:

‘It was shocking for everyone to find out that a company is owned by its members and how it works… we didn’t get any information from the Martu companies before on what was happening… now with KJ we can gain knowledge about how companies run, what is meant to happen.’

As we listened to participants and analysed the huge amount of data that KJ collected during the program’s pilot phase, it was clear that the changes to people’s lives generated from the MLP are deeply interconnected, and more so than KJ had anticipated. For example, KJ didn’t think that the MLP would have a significant influence on kanyirninpa – the way in which young and old Martu support and nurture each other – but that became a cornerstone of the program’s success and acceptance in the community.

By listening to these stories of change in our interviews, analysing program data and reflections, and building on some of KJ’s own thinking, we came up with a way of understanding and describing the social impact the MLP was creating for its participants and the wider Martu community. This was expressed using five Martu wangka (language) words, represented as interconnected circles. This diagram below formed the central part of the MLP theory of change.

theory of change
MLP theory of change expressed using five interconnected Martu wangka (language) words.

As consultants, being able to synthesise and describe the MLP’s outcomes visually helped participants to see the program in a completely new way that resonated strongly with them. Although the intended audience for the evaluation report was government and funders, elements within in the report such as the theory of change diagram also helped Martu to better understand what they were doing in a new way. They have since adopted the diagram to explain the evolution of the program and how it is unfolding when presenting to stakeholders, funders and the broader Martu community.

Strength in objectivity

For me, this was a thought-provoking example of how the distance of being a consultant can be a real strength in helping social purpose organisations to be more effective at delivering services. I can’t begin to understand what kanyirninpa really means for Martu people, or why it’s so important for them. What I can bring is a fresh pair of eyes, a new perspective, and a new way of describing these changes in a way that government and funders will understand and find compelling.

But to do that you have to be ready to listen and ready to learn.

I hope one day that I’ll be lucky enough to be in the audience when the MLP group are presenting this slide at one of their many meetings around the country with business leaders, civil servants or lawmakers, as they work to improve laws and policies and teach the wider community about Martu.


For more information about KJ and the Martu Leadership Program, see the full evaluation report.

For more information about how KJ and SVA Consulting have worked together to produce better outcomes for Martu people, see this case study.