When a donor launches a call for proposals, the time lapse between the submission of the proposal and the beginning of the project can commonly take from 6 months to a year. This supposes that the circumstances have remained the same – which is obviously untrue!
Furthermore, organisations often have limited time and means to write proposals. Of course, they know their work, targets and challenges, but writing a proposal is a clever mix of actual needs on the field, the organisation’s capacities and choices, and donor guidelines. From all this emerges a project, based on hypotheses and priorities corresponding to a given moment. What are these hypotheses worth six months or a year later?
It would be interesting to test them, confront them with reality, to refine, improve and question them. Unfortunately, the organisation has committed itself to implementing activities X, Y and Z, with a defined budget and within a fixed time frame. What a challenge!
Limitation of learning capacities
Although this approach is understandable from an administrative and accounting point of view, it impedes an organisation’s capacity to analyse and adapt whenever they face a problem. As a matter of fact, organisations are obliged to implement the planned activities, crossing their fingers that the result will be as expected at the end of the project.
Of course, certain donors will tell you that they are willing to listen, that changing the goal posts or adapting activities is possible. In reality, many organisations do not feel allowed to do this, as it could be considered poor anticipation and planning.
When implementing projects at a forced march, organisations don’t develop their capacity to ask questions, to get feedback from participants, or to look for new solutions. This is what we said we would do, so this is what we have to do! This approach values project managers, people capable of holding a budget and with reporting skills. But it does not favour learning or innovation. In such a complex world, which is moving at an ever faster pace, we should value testing and the right to error.
The private sector approach
Let’s take a moment to consider new methodologies coming from the private sector. The business plan proposing a 5-year financial projection has had a good run. It is used by bankers, for example to fund a bakery; a stable activity in a stable environment. But in the field of innovation, when creating new activities answering new needs, the up-and-coming methods are “Design thinking”, “Agility”, “Lean Start-up”. What do they have in common? The fact of accepting that at the beginning of a project, there are many unknown factors and risks, and that it’s impossible to identify all of them. We are moving in unfamiliar territory. What matters is to start small, test an idea, learn, question it, pivot, go in another direction and move forward. Error is not a mistake, but a necessary step towards a viable solution. In fact, the mistake would be to plan a project for a year, develop a solution, and find out at the end of that year that obviously things have not worked out as planned.
This step by step approach is probably the most natural for humans not to mention the most efficient: this is how civilisations have developed. Obviously, it is less comfortable for donors as it requires flexibility, adaptability, acceptation of the unknown and of errors. But considering the human, social and environmental costs of all these projects, we should ask ourselves: is it up to organisations to adapt to the rigid administrative rules of donors or is it rather up to donors to adapt to the complex world they wish to improve?