Tshikululu – Due Diligence: NGO Early Development Expansion Programme

Early Childhood Development (ECD) encompasses the full spectrum of development, from birth (or, some researchers say, conception) to age 6.  This includes a child’s cognitive, emotional, sensory, social and physical development. This is a time when the child’s brain is most susceptible to environmental influences and as such, experiences in this time set the foundation for future learning, health and success.

National and international research have shown that access to quality ECD programmes (such as ECD centre-based programmes, and Grade R programmes) protect children against the effects of poverty, poor nutrition, inadequate healthcare and lack of education, thereby allowing them to develop to their full potential.   Therefore, appropriate and timely provision of ECD allows children to learn through play thereby developing their cognitive and social abilities.

If this window of opportunity is not seized, it is incredibly costly for children to catch up to their peers later in schooling. As such, the urgent need for investment into this period of development cannot be overstated.

Tshikululu Social Investments commissioned Mthente Research and Consulting Services to conduct a due diligence evaluation of a Faith-based Non-Government Organisation (NGO) based in Pretoria, and their ECD programme. The programme works with 43 early childhood development (ECD) centres and was proposing to expand working with 150 ECD centres in the next two years and 750 ECD centres in the next 6 years.

In order to make decisions on funding this programme, the due-diligence evaluation conducted research with the NGO, as well as research with the ECD centre beneficiaries of the ECD programme. In so doing, the NGO’s structure and overall financial, human resource, and governance capacity was reviewed, as well as the structure, content and impact of the ECD Programme.

The objectives of this due-diligence study were to:

  • Define and analyse the organisation’s proposed operating model
  • Identify whether the model is worth replicating
  • Ascertain if the organisation has sufficient resource capacity
  • Understand the organisation’s finances and costing (financial due diligence)
  • Observe its impact on beneficiaries.

The Demographic Picture of Children in South Africa

Currently, there is approximately 19,5 million children under the age of 18 in South Africa, with 6,24 million of these children being under the age of six.  Just over one million children are born each year,.

This significant portion of the population is also the most vulnerable. At present, the majority of young children are negatively impacted by the country’s Apartheid and colonial legacy, and the resultant socio-economic inequalities, depriving most of South African’s children of their fundamental right to education, healthcare, social services and nutrition as well as rights which are protected by South Africa’s Constitution and international conventions. This is demonstrated by the fact that approximately 4 million children (0 to 5 – year olds specifically) live in the poorest 40% of households in the country. Roughly 1.8 million children live in households with no employed adults and 22% of children (0 to 5 – year olds) live more than 30 minutes away from the nearest health facility.

Research has found that more than 40% of children in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not attaining their full developmental potential with poverty being highlighted as the major contributing risk factor (World Health Organisation, 2018). This is understood through the critical link between income poverty and a reduction in access to services, such as early education and healthcare services. According to the South African Early Childhood Review (2017), for example, currently 21.3% of children under five in South Africa are stunted, and 13% of children suffer from hunger daily. Furthermore, they found that children from low-income households are significantly less likely than children of wealthier households to participate in early learning programmes.  Only58% of 3 – 5 year olds in the poorest quintile access ECD, compared to 83% of 3 – 5 year olds in the wealthiest quintile.

The consequences of these inequalities are that children enter the formal schooling system with huge variations in their development and school readiness levels. Children then often go through a dysfunctional schooling system which widens these differences.  As such, it is important to intervene early in a child’s life, in order to reduce the inequality that can persist and worsen as they go through formal education.

Early Childhood Development Models in South Africa

There are several models of ECD provision, delivered directly to children, which are currently being provided in South Africa. These can be divided into two categories: centre-based programmes and non-centre-based programmes.

Centre-based programmes comprise those ECD programmes offered in specific facilities, and include ECD centres, Grade R classes in formal schools, as well as crèches, formal playgroups, and pre-primary schools. This would include programmes run by private individuals, private companies or institutions, public institutions (such a government primary schools) and community-based programmes (usually run as non-profit organisations) and includes both registered and non-registered facilities.

Non-centre-based programmes, on the other hand are programmes offered to children that are not traditional ECD centre programmes, and comprise “any ECD programme, service or intervention provided to children from birth until the year before they enter formal school, with the intention to promote the child’s early emotional, cognitive, sensory, spiritual, moral, physical, social,  communication development and early learning”. These non-centre-based programmes include informal playgroups, toy-library programmes, mobile ECD outreach programmes, as well as family outreach programmes that are specifically designed for parents and caregivers to receive support, guidance, and knowledge on early learning stimulation and development of young children to be implemented in their homes.

What Mthente Research and Consulting Services’ Study Revealed

Since joining the ECD programmes reviewed by Mthente the ECD centres have received positive feedback from parents who stated that they have seen an improvement in their children’s language skills and engagement with their everyday environment. Parents reported that their children were talking to them more about the things they learnt at the ECD centres. This included being able to point out everyday objects and naming them.

Some ECD centres reported that parents have been so impressed with the academic and developmental progress of their children since the introduction on the ECD programme that they have begun recommending the centres to their networks. There has also been an increase in parents paying their children’s school fees timeously. Other ECD centres have noted a reduction in the number and frequency of complaints from parents about their children’s progress.

Recommendations were made by Mthente on specific areas of the implementation of the ECD programme as well as recommendations on funding considerations.

It was clear from this study’s beneficiary interviews that the ECD programme was highly valued by its beneficiaries. The participants interviewed expressed affection for the NGO staff and the programme as a whole. The qualitative feedback was resoundingly positive. It is clear that theECD programme is achieving good results and continually improving the ECD centres with which it works. Despite this, the funder decided not to proceed with the proposed expansion of the ECD programme due to weak links to government, inconclusive evidence of rigorous ring-fencing procedures and an absence of a history of proven programme impact (through external evaluations and a mature monitoring system).

While there were several important insights to come out of the research, among the most important were the need for structure, stakeholder advocacy, and continual monitoring and evaluation.


Without a clear start and end point; structuring the programme to long-term, scaled up implementation becomes a challenge. Also challenging is knowing how to recognise and move resources from an upskilled ECD centre, to another ECD centre in need of the training. A rigorous Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) system in any programme would provide data on the ideal time-frame for ECD centres. This could then be tailored to suit ECD centres operating at different quality levels.

Stakeholder Advocacy

It is important to ascertain whether an intervention programme looking to scale-up has the requisite buy-in or potential to achieve buy-in from relevant stakeholders. The size of any one initiative is not necessarily a problem for implementation, however a lack of large-scale specialist partners might not allow for quick and smooth growth of the programme on a large-scale, across the province, and later, across the country.  Tied with this is the need to strengthen internal capacity and form partnerships with other ECD NPOs which might be beneficial in the long term to achieve scale.

Continual Monitoring and Evaluation

Players in the ECD space should hold regular health check meetings to discuss the programme’s progress towards achieving the planned outcomes. The programme’s financial well-being, the team’s efficacy and stakeholder relationships should  also be discussed. These health check meetings provide a mechanism for the early detection of any issues which might arise, and allow the organisation to put into place corrective actions to resolve these issues.

An Art and a Science

With ECD such a critical part of a child’s development and ability to go on to successfully complete higher levels of education, as well as to contribute in a meaningful way to their family (and society as a whole) the importance and impact of programmes such as this cannot be underestimated. As a country, we dream of a fully functional population where equality of education allows for the success of each and every citizen. And as the research shows, it all starts with effective ECD.

But while there can be no doubting the importance of ECD programmes, those wanting to scale have to meet the common requirements we’ve outlined above. Current processes of ECD centre assessment, rating, and progression is in some ways an “art-form”, currently conducted and facilitated by individuals with in-depth knowledge of ECD and the centres with which they work. However, if the players in the space want to expand and replicate their programmes, then it’s clear that all stakeholders need to be as systematic as possible and apply a little science to the “art” of evaluation.