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Monday, 14 November 2011

While in Northern Thailand last year, I was invited to the Payap University in Chiang Mai for a session with some budding social entrepreneurs. A group of University students that were starting a project on multi-lingual learning for one of the local communities they had been working with, needed help with understanding how to implement their ideas. This post is based on the questions we identified during that session.

Payap University, Chiang Mai

As with many new projects, the solution here was pre-assumed and taken as given; based on their particular point of academic focus. In other words they had something they believed would be beneficial to local communities and set about finding a place to fit their solution, without first answering the difficult questions that need to be asked.

Having worked with over 100 social organisations around the world, I’ve found that this is a major reason why projects struggle to both survive and/or make any meaningful impact. Many ‘unexpected’ challenges can quite easily be extrapolated in advance if someone just bothers to model (think critically about) the implementation cycle before rushing in.

Truth is it’s not that the group or individual is being wilfully negligent. Since most people in this space mean well and start out with the assumption that their idea/approach will be useful…

  1. There is a natural and understandable tendency to gloss over anything that might indicate the project is not worth starting.
  2. For most new entrants without previous experiences of starting up and implementing solutions, the questions to ask are not always obvious.

So for all you budding social entrepreneurs out there, here's a list of some basic questions that you must be able to answer before starting a project, raising money, or writing proposals.

As I mentioned in my other post on the 20 Keys to Building a Successful Social Enterprise, vaguely ‘knowing’ the answer in your head is not good enough. You must be able to document at least half a page on each.

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3 Basic Steps in Starting a Social Project

  1. Imagine the programme/project in detail to understand start-up design and cost.
  2. Ensure you have a clear long term vision and expectations, plus a development plan to get there. These are critical for both credibility and sustainability.
  3. Identify (research) the mechanism of fundraising and the type of funder based on the amount of funding required. Note that small funding has different criteria to large funding.

Overall, it is point 1 i.e. imagining the project in detail that most people have trouble with. The approach is usually to get started and see what happens, instead of doing the difficult diligence first.

So this post is about help with the first step in the start-up cycle.

Questions to help you flesh out and imagine your project in detail

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Solution/Project Design

  1. What tells you there is a problem in the community i.e. What are the specific indicators of the problem and what is the size of the problem? (This is your Problem Definition and initial Benchmarking)
  2. Which specific bit are you most worried about i.e. trying to improve/change? (This is your Mission)
  3. How will you address those problem indicators? (This your Idea/Strategy/Solution)
  4. What are the challenges you see i.e. Why might your plans fail? (These are your Risks
  5. How will you know if these are the right approaches? (This is your Pilot i.e. where you test your ideas with the community and/or ensure that you have involved them in the design)
  6. How would you start, and how long would it take to get your idea working eg. How long to build and set up community support, or get planning permission, or train staff, or test/pilot your idea etc? (This is your initial Start-up Timeline)
  7. How would it evolve from a pilot into a mature programme, and over what timeframe? (This is your long-term development Roadmap)
  8. How and When would you know that the problem is solved? (This is your Vision and defines your Outcome Targets)

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Short Term Effectiveness and Efficiency

  1. Who else is doing the same thing and can you just help them instead?
  2. Who can you partner with?
  3. What solutions can you copy?
  4. What more do you need to learn to do this properly?
  5. How can the community help and how can they stay involved?
  6. How could you use volunteers?

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Costing and Budgeting

  1. What infrastructure does the project need (physical, organisational, technological, logistical)?
  2. What people/skills does the project need?
  3. What other things like materials will the project use?
  4. How much would it cost to start/set-up the project?
  5. How much would it cost to maintain?
  6. What might be the ideal size for your organisation, and what would you need to grow it to that point?

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Long-Term Sustainability

  1. How would you make this sustainable either financially, or in terms of staffing and replication?
  2. How could you pass the project over to the community?

When you can answer all of the above in some detail, you're probably ready to start your own project. The answers don’t have to be perfect. Most of what you come up with is unlikely to match the reality that will play out, but you absolutely have to try. 

Until then, hold off and do the groundwork to ensure that you and your idea won’t just waste money that could be put to better use.

Finally, make the difficult decision – Go or No-Go.

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