I was reading a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and I came across possibly the worst advice to NGOs I've ever seen. And I hate to be critical of others - and that's why I'm not naming here - but what really disturbs me is when lazy development practice is presented as fact.
Now, if that it been a comment in a Facebook group it would have been understandable. Many Communities of Practice in Facebook are full of people still learning. And it's great they try to help each other, even if it is sometimes the blind leading the blind.
But this was from an organization that claims to train others on project planning and proposal writing. And it's quite possible they do a good job of that, and they share lots of useful tips and ideas. But with apologies to the original author (who I won't call out), this really missed the mark
"In theory, outcomes should be defined while designing the objectives of a project. Sometimes, this is not very easy though."
Hmmm. OK ... so far. Let's leave aside that outcome and objective refer to the same thing - the change the project promises to deliver by its end. And let's not dwell on the 'in theory' part. We are development practitioners, not development theorists. So any well-designed project must start with a clear objective or outcome.
And, yes, it's not always so easy, if you aren't following a logical project design methodology.
Just as it is hard to brush your hair if you are staring at your shoelaces.
"So what can you do? Whenever possible, try to stick to outputs rather than outcomes."
Stick to outputs?
After over half a century of development practice - after 15 years that Results-Based Management has been mainstreamed - why are we still hearing this? It's too 'hard' to define a project outcome, let's just stick to activities and outputs?
Can I just spell a few things out - bear with me. This will be familiar to most of you, but even for you experts it might be refreshingly clear and simple.
Projects are about achieving positive change. Training teachers isn't change. Building a health-post isn't change. Providing water isn't, of itself, change. Nor is raising communities' awareness of trafficking, reproductive health or the importance of getting girls into school. They're all things projects 'do' - they are operations - activities that give us short-term outputs which together achieve the outcome / objective.
And that's what donors are funding. Sure, the short-sighted ones will happily fund activities if their supporters like it. But donors that are really interested in doing the right things, in cooperation with each other and with governments, and in alignment with country development objectives won't touch projects that simply focus on outputs, however needed those outputs may be.
Because there is a difference between doing good things and doing the right things. And by right things, we mean those things that create a measurable change at the higher level - better access to education, improved health, more secure livelihoods.
And you can't just tack those onto your activities like the icing on a cake. You START with the objectives.
Once you know the problem you want to solve, you have your destination - your objective. You know where you are going. Which is better than driving round and round with no map.
And the map is how you will get there. That changed state that the project will deliver THROUGH its outputs.
Methodologies might differ slightly. A Theory of Change will work backwards and look at all the conditions that have to exist for that change to take place. The Logical Framework Approach - still the most consistently used methodology for project planning and fundamental to the Results-Based Management approach - will examine all the existing negative aspects that cause the current negative state, and aim to address them as comprehensively as possible. Both approaches are valid.
During this process is when we identify what outputs are required to achieve the outcome.
Now I've let off steam, I'll let you go. But there's no excuse for not having a clear project outcome. Otherwise, we really are just driving around without a destination.
And if you really want to plan projects that make a difference - projects that your donors will support - it's not that hard to learn.
In fact, we've put together an online training on Results-Based Management, Monitoring and Evaluation that covers ALL the steps of designing a project that gets results. And as well as designing your own project, you also get to build your M&E Plan so you can track progress and demonstrate to donors you really can deliver.
Check it out HERE.
If the course isn't open for enrollment right now, add your name to the waiting list to get early notification as well as 20% off.