Testing family-based care messages for different audiences

Author: Christina Synowiec, Results for Development

Problem and context: 

Cambodia has experienced a recent, rapid rise in the number of residential care institutions (RCIs). Most children in Cambodian RCIs are not orphans but come from families who cannot afford the financial burden of their child or believe that their child will receive better care or education in an RCI. This is often not the case, placing children at risk of unnecessary separation from their families.

Program approach:

Family Care First (FCF) Cambodia is a multi-stakeholder initiative launched by USAID that includes over 30 implementing organizations piloting approaches to reduce the number of children in RCIs. The program aims to prevent family-child separation and promote the re-integration of children from residential care institutions to families. FCF partnered with Rapid Feedback Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (RFMERL), a USAID mechanism focused on generating timely information for programs to adapt and improve activity design throughout implementation, and to generate evidence on the effectiveness of behavior change communication activities in Cambodia.

How did the program harness responsive feedback?

When this initiative began, little was known about how to create behavior change among communities and donors to move away from RCIs and toward family-based care. Led by Results for Development (R4D) and Abt Associates, RF MERL worked with FCF implementers to test different components of behavior change campaigns quickly and iteratively.

RF MERL worked with the network of implementing partners to co-develop a theory of change for the initiative, in turn identifying assumptions for testing that had both high potential for impact and uncertainty around optimal design. This process led us to the question: what activities at the community and donor level would result in the behavior change of supporting family-based care over RCIs? RF MERL identified two implementing partners to target our support: Cambodian Children’s Trust and Friends International, two Cambodian non-profit alternative care institutions, to experiment with approaches to create behavior change among communities and international donors.

Testing SBCC in Cambodian communities

RF MERL kicked off the engagement with formative research in potential target Cambodian communities for CCT’s social work and behavior change activities. The team wanted to understand the types of campaign messages and communication channels that would resonate with community members. RF MERL also worked in partnership with CCT to conduct rounds of Lean Testing, a method to quickly and iteratively test basic prototypes, focused on campaign messages and findings. We used this information to develop a behavior change campaign and measured its effects through a feedback experiment, or test of promising intervention options to gather feedback and iterate on the intervention design.

Testing SBCC targeting international donors

RF MERL conducted a similar process of formative research with FI to understand the types of campaign messages and communication channels that would resonate with international donors contributing to Cambodian RCIs. We then moved into a Feedback Experiment to compare social media platforms for the campaign. We compared audiences exposed to two different online channels, 1) ads promoted through Facebook Ads, and 2) ads promoted through Google Display Ads – both of which emerged as important channels in formative research. To assess the effectiveness of the ads, we evaluated the impact of the ads on donors’ perceptions of RCIs and likelihood of donating and volunteering, as well as the costs to FI of posting the ads.


Testing SBCC in Cambodian communities

  1. Respondents in villages that received a formal messaging campaign along with CCT’s social work were slightly more likely to be aware that RCIs can result in psychological or emotional harms in children, and less likely to report they may actually send their child to an RCI in the future.
  2. Violence in the household and if one or more parents lives outside of the household were identified as key risk factors for children being sent to RCIs. This finding supports social workers in targeting their work in communities most affected by these factors.

Testing SBCC targeting international donors

  1. Digital communication can have an impact. Informational ads on Facebook had a small, detectable effect on viewers’ attitude about RCIs. However, neither Facebook nor Google influenced respondents’ likelihood of future donation or volunteering behavior.
  2. A static ad is not enough to result in behavior change. As a result, the implementers explored the possibility of video ads or interactive campaigns to increase engagement.

 Key learnings:

  1. Devote resources to program coordination

In projects where there may be a consortium of implementing partners, embed an in-country team or person to be responsible for coordinating with the large number of partners involved in the initiative. This person can also support design, implementation, and adaptation activities.

Having a consistent point of contact will support the wider team in balancing a rigorous technical approach with the constraints of implementation by acting as a liaison between implementing and technical partners.

Further, they may improve the team’s understanding of the project itself and the needs of the partners, including ensuring that activities are both feasible and relevant for the partners throughout the course of the engagement. This consistent presence and point of contact for local partners, data collectors, and other stakeholders is crucial to the success of the project.

  1. Set the tone and expectations

It is important to set the right tone and expectations when requesting consistent feedback. Partners must understand that suggestions will be prioritized based on several factors and that all ideals, learnings, and feedback might not be able to be implemented.

  1. Plan how to navigate complex funding mechanisms

The USAID funding mechanism structure set some limitations on how far feedback loops could be integrated. Having a plan in place from the outset for how to navigate these or similar limitations will reduce confusion later in the program.

  1. Establish a fail fast culture

Framing the early initiative phase as a ‘pilot’ encouraged honest reflection from both USAID and implementing partners. Other programs should establish a similar culture that invites honest discussion of mistakes and areas of improvement.

For further information, see https://r4d.org/blog/experimenting-with-behavior-change-communications-to-reduce-family-child-separation-in-cambodia/