Strategic Impact: Multiplying Our Effectiveness with Children at Risk

by Greg W. Burch, Andy Sexton, and Angela Murray

How can we ever hope to assist the vast multitude of children at risk? There is a way, and that is to be strategic!

Children live on the streets in many cities throughout our world. Phyllis Kilbourn and others estimate that there are as many as 200 million children either sleeping or working on the streets (2006, 1). As Patrick McDonald and others have discussed, it is hard to accurately assess the numbers because of the mobility of these children (and their families), and because definitions of street children vary widely (2000, 23). However, no matter what the actual number, we know it is an enormous issue, and we know how vulnerable these children are to violence, disease, and exploitation. How can we ever hope to assist this vast multitude of children? There is a way, and that is to be strategic! This article uses examples from work with street-living and working children; however, its principles are applicable for work with all children at risk.

What does being strategic mean? Strategy can be defined as determining where we are at, where we want to be, and how we will get there.

An Introduction to Strategic Planning
Is being strategic biblical? Shouldn’t we just obey God’s calling and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading? Jesus was strategic. He chose twelve men in which to invest most of his time. At key decision points he took time to pray (e.g., Mark 1:35, 6:46; John 17:1). He was careful not to be distracted from his ultimate purpose of reaching the Israelites and strategically chose when to go to different places so that the crowds would not attempt to make him ruler of Israel (e.g., Matt. 15: 21-28, John 6:15). His kingdom was different from what they envisioned, and he had to be strategic in order to make it happen. Another example of strategic planning was Nehemiah successfully rebuilding Jerusalem. There are numerous other biblical examples; being strategic is biblical and important in order to fulfill a vision.

Who should be strategic? People involved with individual projects can be strategic to ensure they achieve the best possible outcomes for the children with whom they work. These people can work together and form alliances with churches and government in city-wide, national, or even sub-regional strategic approaches. Globally, we can come together to strategically multiply impact with children at risk. Practically, being strategic involves:

1. Research and networking
2. Participation of stakeholders
3. Setting the vision and objectives
4. Planning
5. Resources
6. Implementation and monitoring
7. Evaluation

The Research Stage
In order to answer the question “Where are we?” research needs to be conducted. Below is an example of a project that could have turned out differently if only there had been the development of a strategic plan. Our friend Raju made the mistake of not doing research before he established his street youth project. He saw a need, and met that need based upon a series of assumptions. This is common among children-at-risk workers. Many feel the need to respond urgently, and do so without taking the time to understand the issues or context. Raju forgot to find out why the youth were on the streets, why they were not at school, or who else was working with them. The local schools in which he enrolled the children were basically non-functional. He employed youth who could not go to the local school to assist him with outreach…and broke child labor laws in the process. The youth were already enrolled in a skills training program with another project; however, because they started to go to school and were not attending training, they could not graduate and missed a whole year. Unfortunately, Raju caused more harm than good.

Research should involve finding out all that can be known about issues the children are facing and who is working with them. This will ensure appropriate responses and avoid duplication. Stakeholders can and should be asked to define the issues, and also have input into the solutions. This includes the children and their families. It can be easy for us to assume we know what is best for a child. Equally, we can often fall into the trap of seeing street children as one large group, thus forgetting that each child is an individual. Each child has his or her own story and reasons for being on the street. Each also has his or her own hopes and dreams for the future. Unless we take the time to engage with the perspectives and needs of these children, our interventions and solutions will never be as strategic as they could be.

At the research stage it is also crucial that we are able to step back from the work we have previously been engaged in and allow ourselves to consider other ways of working. This can often be difficult, especially if we have been used to working in one particular way for a significant amount of time. However, taking the time to think outside of the box can often lead us to new and fresh ideas.

Making a Vision a Reality
A vision for transformation, with a clear set of measurable objectives, will emerge from this process. The next step is to establish a detailed plan for how to make this vision a reality. This needs to include what to do, by whom, and by when. It should indicate not only the people resources necessary, but all the other resources as well. Once you write this up, you have the basis for a funding proposal to donors, as well as a clear strategy for your team. (Caution: Do not wait until you have a fancy purpose-built facility before you start. Instead, get working on the streets where the children are; borrow a facility if you need one. The groundwork to establishing any successful ministry to street-living and working children involves caring for children and youth where they are: on the street.)

Monitoring and evaluation are key components to being strategic in our care of children at risk. Monitoring is making sure that the activities in your strategic plan are being done, and budgeting. Evaluation is making sure those activities are having the desired impact…that your vision and objectives are being met. This is an essential part of being strategic. If you don’t evaluate, you can never celebrate! Evaluation can also be useful in that it can highlight the potential unintended negative impacts our work may be having. Take, as an example, a prevention project in Guatemala, which sought to reduce the number of children taking to life on the streets. The organization worked in some of the poorest communities on the outskirts of Guatemala City. An in-depth evaluation of the work demonstrated that the children involved in the scheme benefited greatly from the project and were much less likely to migrate to the streets. However, the evaluation also revealed that other families in the community who were not part of the scheme felt alienated and marginalized by the work. While they appreciated that the organization was attempting to offer help to the most vulnerable, the community felt they should be involved in the decisions regarding who receives help in the future. These findings enabled the organization to refine its mode of working and allowed much stronger community links to be formed.

What a City-wide Strategic Initiative Looks Like
A city-wide strategy seeks to pull together interested parties in responding to the issues that street-living and working children (or other at-risk children) face within one particular city. The approach seeks to pull together a comprehensive network across the city. The interested parties in the network may include prevention projects, street projects, homes, government initiatives, drug rehab work, prison work, vocational training schemes, pregnancy crisis centers, and educational projects. Whoever is involved, the strategy developed must include four key components if we aim to be successful in mobilizing God’s community to impact children in crises: a facilitating body, kingdom mindedness, commitment to quality care, and child/youth participation.

Take, for example, the Encuentro Temprano de Cochabamba (Early Encounter Cochabamba or EEC) project. EEC is a city-wide strategy being carried out in Cochabamba, Bolivia, by seventeen Christian childcare projects committed to impacting children at risk in the city. In addition to the seventeen projects working directly with the children, eleven local churches are also involved in praying and supporting these projects.

A facilitating body. In the case of EEC, Viva-Together with Children of Bolivia is coordinating the strategy with help from The Toybox Charity and the regional office for Viva in Costa Rica. But the complexity of the facilitating body does not need to be as sophisticated as the EEC. An important principle to keep in mind is the context in which the city-wide strategy is going to take place. In some contexts, the facilitating body might just simply be a committee or group of people elected from within the representative organizations committed to the strategy. In other cases, as in EEC, this might be a fully supported, independent facilitating organization. It is important to allow the cultural and organizational contexts to speak into this issue as one moves forward.  

Kingdom mindedness. God’s reign and the extension of his kingdom should be a value held by those participating in the city-wide strategy. This inherently creates an exclusive community; however, we should be mindful that exclusion does not imply isolation. We must find ways to work with organizations, including governmental, inter-governmental, and secular bodies that are essential players in any given context. As a group of organizations and causes dedicated to extending God’s values in society and among children at risk, we must not isolate ourselves from other institutions that are essential in providing care for children in any given context. In the case of EEC, all of the seventeen representative projects are Christian organizations committed to holistic ministry to children. However, despite this clear Christian focus, these projects, through the work of the facilitating body, have developed links with local government. This has led to the legal accreditation of projects and to the development of joint initiatives. One of the keys to this success has been the positive approach and strategy employed by EEC. Rather than highlighting the potential differences between their approach and the approach of the government, the EEC team has worked hard to demonstrate how their strategies for the children of Bolivia are similar. They have sought not to criticize the government for its failings, but instead to emphasize the positives and to walk alongside the authorities as they aim to bring about positive change for the children of their country.  

Commitment to quality care. Quality care implies several concerned targets involving (1) holistic development, (2) protection policies, (3) financial transparency, (4) child participation, and (5) member care. Quality control should take place gradually and progressively but proves to be a major emphasis within the implementation of the strategy. These policies should affect the care of children in both residential and non-residential programs, as well as personnel issues, volunteer placement, and our relationship with donors. Quality control can be positively developed through planned capacity-building workshops and training sessions which include inviting outside experts.

Those involved with projects can identify their own needs and bring attention to these needs through inter-governmental meetings conducted by the representative group or committee. Special focus should be given to the mission and vision statements of the organization as part of the quality control process. Ultimately, some of the questions we might hope to answer in our quality foci are: What is it we are doing? How are we? How are we doing? and Where do we need to improve? EEC in Bolivia has already seen some very encouraging developments through their quality improvement scheme. The project participants have not only appreciated the training and input which they have been given, but they have also benefited greatly from being linked and connected to each other. People in several of the projects had previously been completely unaware of other similar projects and felt isolated in their mission. As a united network these individual organizations are not only seeking to improve the quality of their own work but are also spurring one another toward their united future vision for the city.  

Child and youth participation. Child and youth participation is a critical component to the city-wide strategy. If we truly seek to establish a city-wide strategy, we must see to it that the very children and youth we are seeking to reach are highly involved with the design, plan, and implementation of the project. One example is found in the EEC strategy. As a network of organizations committed to working with children at risk, they have developed a place where children are given a voice to speak into issues affecting the projects to which they belong. For example, a child ambassador program has been initiated. Child ambassadors are democratically elected from within each of the represented organizations. Two ambassadors are elected by the very children being cared for. The ambassadors are responsible to help represent and speak up for the children in the project. Monthly meetings are carried out by the ambassadors and are organized with the help of an adult facilitator who provides training and general orientation for the children. The ambassadors have represented their projects before governmental bodies, professional athletic departments, churches, and NGOs. The also take a lead on some local level advocacy. A great example of this is the recent “Vaccination Campaign.” Child ambassadors know only too well that violence in the home is a huge problem in their city. In order to bring about changes in their society, they took to the streets to educate adults about how to treat children properly. The ambassadors used drama activities to attract a crowd and then took the opportunity to talk about how children need to be treated. They then asked the adults to agree to treat children well in the future. Those who wanted to sign up were given a vaccination card, which symbolized that they had been vaccinated against mistreating children. They were also given a sweet and a sticker. The ambassadors loved being part of this initiative and are keen to have a voice and a role not only in the future of the EEC scheme, but also in the future of their city. They already have more vaccination campaigns planned for next year.

Children are an essential group within the city-wide strategy who should be given the space to participate if we desire to include all of the key players within any given city.

Ultimately, the development of city-wide strategies will provide us with the opportunity to come together as a community that is committed to caring for children in crises. The effectiveness of our city-wide outreach to children at risk will have its greatest impact when we come together and think strategically.

Coming Together for the Greater Good
On a global scale, in 2005, the 180 Degrees Alliance was formed with the specific aim of multiplying impact with street children across the world. The strategy was to bring together people who had significant experience working with street children, former street children, and donor partners to improve current work with street children globally and incubate creative and strategic local initiatives. Some of the key outcomes have been establishing a project accreditation tool, accrediting a number of projects which have received capacity-building funding as a result, establishing two project-support hubs (one in Brazil and one in the Philippines), setting up a user-friendly website (  with many downloadable resources, documenting existing strategic initiatives, and successfully advocating for an end to forced roundups of women and children living on the streets of Kampala.

You can be strategic and multiply impact among children at risk. At the project level step back and look carefully at the work. Celebrate the team’s successes and take action together to improve areas of weakness. Ensure you have a strategic plan. Check that it has all the elements above. Use it as a guiding document for day-to-day activity, not as a document stored in an untouched file on your hard drive. You can be strategic by working with others, in partnership, to affect a city, a nation, or a sub-region. One way to be strategic is by joining the 180 Degrees Alliance (for other alliances, see It is only together that we can make any real impact on the global situation facing children at risk today. Be strategic and you will multiply impact among children at risk.

Kilbourn, Phyllis. 2006. “In Focus.” The Barnabas Letter 5(2).

McDonald, Patrick. 2000. Reaching Children in Need. Eastbourne, U.K.: Kingsway Communications.


Greg W. Burch, a member of Latin America Mission, is a professor at ESEPA Bible College in San José, Costa Rica. After six years of ministry among street-living and working children in Caracas, Venezuela, Greg is now dedicating his time to research and advocacy on behalf of children at risk. Andy Sexton is on study leave from his job as Oasis International director of children at risk. From 1994 to 2003 he worked to prevent and facilitate positive change with children living on the streets in Australia and Zimbabwe. Angela Murray has been involved in work with street children since 1999, when she worked in Guatemala. She has subsequently worked for two U.K.-based street child organizations.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 




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