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  • Paul Bakker & Kaitlyn Kochany

Sustainable Livelihoods Framework Explainer

How do systems interact with individuals to help improve or worsen a person’s situation? What stages are involved in transitioning out of survival mode, and what helps people build needed assets toward their livelihoods (that is, being able to engage in community/society as they desire)?

At its core, the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework is a theory of change that describes all the complex factors that shape people’s journeys to achieving a sustainable livelihood. A person achieves a sustainable livelihood when they have enough of the various assets needed to deal with challenges, and to continue engaging in community and society as they desire. The framework guides both how to design and provide supports for people across their livelihood journeys, and how to assess the effectiveness of those support. By combining four different areas—the vulnerability context, the policy context, assets, and livelihood development stages—we can start putting together forward-thinking services and evaluations that meet people and organizations where they are, and start planning for the future.

The Vulnerability Context

Every one of us is affected by cycles, changes, and shocks that can happen on a personal to a global scale. Some of these stressors are predictable, like the challenge of a new baby or the expense of a holiday season. Others may come as a surprise, like an eviction or a global pandemic. Once someone is in a vulnerable position, there are social and institutional forces that often contribute to keeping them there. Those external forces can be powerful—consider the effects of racism, sexism, the gig economy, rising housing costs, inflation, and others.


Assets are one of the most exciting things for a program evaluator to consider. We love to see people grow! The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework asks people to rate their own assets in six different areas—basic needs, health, money, skills and employability, sense of self, and connections—and consider how they can strengthen each area. In avoiding the deficits-focused approach that has been so common in social services, people are encouraged to recognize and build their assets themselves, and to tap into helpful supports when they need to. The asset areas are mutually supportive, with feedback loops. For example, positive connections can support positive mental health, positive mental health can support building positive connection, and deficits in one asset area can negatively impact the other. We can track asset change over time though tools like asset maps, pre-post retrospective surveys, and tracking people’s goal achievement.

The Livelihood Development Stages

When we talk about “livelihood,” we’re not referring to a person’s work (at least, not exclusively). Livelihood refers to social, economic, and personal engagement that helps build quality of life and asset areas. As people stabilize and move towards a sustainable livelihood, they use fewer coping strategies and more asset-building strategies. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework’s strength is recognizing that the path from destabilized to a sustainable livelihood is complex, moves though many phases of engagement and transition, and isn’t always linear; people backtrack all the time. This should not be seen as a program or personal failure, but rather the reality that many people experience.

The Policy and Institutional Context

For better or worse, the way organizations and governments operate have trends, and these can have a huge impact on culture and the individual. One example is abstinence-only service provision; this requires clients using a service, like emergency shelters, abstain from using drugs or alcohol. This is one potential policy that can be adopted; others include harm reduction or housing-first models. Policies and institutions contribute to the way people stabilize—or don’t.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework’s Implications for Evaluation

Adopting the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework allows programs and evaluators to use common evaluation tools that are relatively simple and easily to implement. Staff members can adopt the tools quickly and help clients to use them in a self-directed way. The Sustainable Livelihoods framework can be used with the Common Approach to Impact Measurement, providing a flexible and meaningful way to aggregate results and learn what works across programs and contexts.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework’s has several other implications for evaluation that shape Social Impact Squared’s approach:

  • Matching Evaluation Approach to Level of Complexity: When people are destabilized or stabilizing, their lives are complex, with many potential factors that can change their priorities and assets in unpredictable ways. We recognize that static programming that sticks to predefined plans and rules is often not the most effective approach to support individuals with complex and developing needs and assets. Instead, organizations can more effectively help people stabilize by providing principles-focused support. To evaluate efforts to support people in the early livelihood stages, we take a principles-focused developmental evaluation approach. We apply more traditional impact evaluation approaches for more rules-based programming aimed at supporting people in later livelihood stages.

  • Collective Impact: We recognize that most programs do not solely affect one outcome, and problems are rarely solved by a single actor or program. Solutions often require many actors working to create mutually dependent outcomes. For example, we are currently using the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework to capture the collective impact of the network of organizations in the Creditvale Community Wellness Hub.

  • Describing People’s Livelihood Journeys: The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework recognizes that change is complex and non-linear. People’s journeys and organizations’ impact cannot be adequately capture by simple statistics. While our Sustainable Livelihood evaluations make use of quantitative methods, we also collect rich qualitative data and involved participants in sense-making to learn what works, for whom, and under what conditions.

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