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10 principles of successful project development


"A goal without a plan is just a wish", Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Good planning is a key concern for every Civil Society Organisation. If you rely on grants, your ability to develop successful proposals is a decisive factor for the financial health of your organisation and the scale of your activities. And even if you have other revenue streams, the quality of planning plays a key role in the efficient implementation, effectiveness, and impact of the project. Hence, when developing a project you should follow these 10 principles to sustain impact and ensure success.

The principles:

1. Make every new project into something special: be ambitious but keep your feet on the ground.

Ambition energizes the team, is attractive, and may lead to something special.

2. Understand your donor: Where is the common ground for a win-win situation? Who decides on new projects and according to which criteria?

Analyse the call for proposals, policy papers, and guidelines. Network with your existing and potential key donors at the country level and make sure they know how well you perform. If you have an HQ, get in touch with the responsible officers at your HQ level.

3. Never plan a stand-alone project! Integrate your project into something bigger.

Relate the proposal to your organisational priorities, strategies and success indicators. Relate to the program documents, previous projects, or potential future projects and, to the capacities of your staff and your partners. Relate the project to human rights, national legislation, and state actors and obligations. In case of emergency response be involved in clusters, and coordinate with other agencies. Consider consortia and multi-country projects to create synergies.

4. Do not sit alone in front of the computer and start writing a proposal! Rather lead and facilitate a process.

Project planning is a team exercise, an iterative process, which needs the buy-in from different stakeholders. Make sure that people with different experiences and capacities are involved in your team (finance, on-site experience, writing skills, etc.). However, it also needs a skilful facilitator and planner that consolidates ideas and brings them together in a coherent document.

The steps of such a process could be:

  • Go / No Go Decision to develop a proposal by the organisational leadership

  • Set up a proposal development team with a coordinator and decide who does the writing

  • Kick-off meeting with the proposal development team to develop a road map

  • Develop a first basic concept to give the process a frame

  • Do the critical assessments and analysis: Include an assessment of need of the target group as well as an actor mapping

  • Ensure collective planning and stakeholder buy-in

  • Proposal writing, budgeting

  • Iteration, plausibility checks, and proofreading

  • Submission

  • Feedback on the process and teamwork

5. Make sure you understand the target groups - yes, really understand them!

Make a conscious selection of tools you want to use to analyse and understand your target group. Never assume that you know what they require, or what would bring them forward. Be accountable to the target groups and partners to set the basis for trustful cooperation in the future.

6. Get the intervention logic right! It is at the heart of the project.

Make sure the intervention logic is short, precise, and can be understood easily. Having a lack of clarity here, at the beginning of a new project, this lack of clarity may well continue throughout the project implementation, and hamper success.


As a thumb rule, log-frames should have 1 project purpose, not more than 3 outputs, and a maximum of 3 indicators per output or purpose. Choose qualitative and quantitative indicators. Allow for sufficient feedback loops and check your intervention logic against the standard evaluation criteria: relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact, and sustainability.

7. The proposal, log frame, and budget must be consistent!

This refers to a number of units, unit costs, costs, and activities.

8. Use your organisational knowledge!

Refer to organisational experience, consider organisational documents, use the best resources in your head office and from other countries (where possible), be ready to learn from other colleagues, and consider and reflect on lessons learnt and good practices of others. Plan the appropriate time for this.

9. When writing, always have the reader & evaluator in mind!

Some tips include:

  • Stick to the donor template – they have chosen it for a reason!

  • Provide a short & attractive summary of the project at the beginning of the proposal.

  • Using short sentences, and clear and simple language is critical.

  • Consider using bullet points for the first draft to ensure coherence, and flow, and avoid redundancies. Convert it into a flow text later.

  • Use a combination of flow text, bullet points, lists, small illustrations, and text boxes.

  • The editing should be attractive and enhance the reading experience.

  • Use data, “revealing quotes” of the target group, and short examples to illustrate your argument.

  • Refer to the collective planning process and to successes in previous interventions.

  • Never forget the evaluation criteria of the donor.

  • Be brave and delete text sections that are not really relevant.

  • Re-check every paragraph and make the text shorter, smarter, clearer, and more persuasive.

10. Go the last mile!

A winning proposal has to be close to perfect. Don’t lose your chance on the home stretch. Reserve at least 2 days for the last mile.

How facilitators can use the principles

As a reference for the participants in our courses on project management and programme design, we have defined 10 principles together with our colleagues from Welthungerhilfe. They cover the key aspects of successful project development and can be used as a workshop tool as well. We have used the 10 principles in the following way:

First, the facilitator illustrates best practices using the 10 principles. Subsequently, the participants reflect in groups of two on "Which are the most important principles for me?", and finally each participant gets three votes to indicate what is most important for him/her. Then we reflect with the entire group in the plenary which principles have been most relevant for the group and why.

10 Principles of successful project design
Photo by Civil Society Academy

For those who are interested, go to Programme Design to discover more details about our upcoming comprehensive course. This advanced-level course will give you practical guidance to develop effective and innovative programmes towards ending hunger and poverty.

 

About the Author:

Joachim Schwarz started his career with the UN before shifting to Civil Society. In Welthungerhilfe, he worked in leadership positions in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, and as Regional Director for South Asia. Joachim is passionate about Civil Society and has been a main engine of the Civil Society Academy since its inception in 2014.

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Please contact: Joachim Schwarz

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