Not if but how – troubleshooting in projects

  By Luis Costa, Manager, Mediterranean Basin, MAVA Foundation

Trouble is normal and problems are part of any project. This should be an assumption when planning the project cycle, from design to implementation.

Recent assessments on causes for failure or problems affecting projects in conservation show a good number of factors that can disturb or even halt a project. It may include poor design of the project, weak coordination or governance, underestimating external factors with an unmeasured optimism, lack of material or baseline knowledge, or even interpersonal clashes within a team. This global pandemic also shows how volatile project conditions can be when such an impacting event occurs.

In my previous life before joining MAVA, I experienced ‘the other side’ of the relation between donors and grantees, working in a non-profit as a grantee or being a consultant contributing to troubleshooting projects. Bringing together this experience with the daily work of managing Outcome Action Plans at MAVA, I wanted to explore the importance of troubleshooting and the best way to set up donor-partner relationships for resolving any kind of problems, thus ensuring impactful projects.

Part of the answers are already given in the recent book Be an Octopus, where MAVA staff reflect on what is to be an engaged donor. To dig a bit further on troubleshooting, I spoke with a few colleagues, consultants, donors and partners. This blog is therefore a brief reflection based on personal and others’ experiences. The result is not surprising, yet a common understanding of the problems does not always lead to common solutions.

It’s all about trust and transparency

Basically, the closer the donor is in his funding approach, and the more engaged it is for going beyond the grant, the bigger the chances to enhance a trustful and open relationship with the partner organisation.

In the end, trust and transparency have been flagged as major factors for successful donor engagement and troubleshooting by partners. Some raised that just the fact that there is a face and a person representing the institution, that is open to talk, to discuss the project and to find solutions together, is crucial for having an open dialogue and sincerity.

One partner says that in comparison with some other donors, the flexibility to accept change and to discuss it in a climate of trust and openness, makes them reveal problems and internal findings with the donor that otherwise would not be revealed. Partners want to make a difference and have an impact, as much as donors. And they want to maximise the use of the funds they are using, but sensitive information is seldom shared if on the other side no sign of trust and transparency is shown.

Donors have different approaches to being involved with projects – from rolling up their sleeves and helping with project design or even implementation, to maintaining arm’s length distance from the shaping. A more distant and formal relationship with partners will definitely be characterised by less and more distant communication, less or no missions to understand the project in situ. This could mean that the main troubleshooting happens only when the grantee alerts a donor to a problem. Sadly, without a grounded understanding of the assumptions and on-the-ground challenges, this scenario can more often result in decisions to withdraw funding or in extreme cases, have the funds reimbursed. An open dialogue and a feeling of being on the same side opens the door to problem-solving together and working as a team to address issues.

We got very good feedback from partners regarding discussions about projects and troubleshooting. Of course this is not exclusive to MAVA – many other donors are known for having the same approach to nurture trust and a close relationship. In our experience, though, some points are important to refer:

Building trust is a process that takes time. Sometimes, a long time, and it is worth waiting for the right moment to have the right level of trust that triggers the timing for more significant funding and efficient troubleshooting.

Efficient and ideal troubleshooting means good resources, meaning sufficient and skilled staff but also time to closely monitor and nurture the relationship between the donor and the grantee. The more you want to be involved in a project and be able to jump in for troubleshooting at any time, the more you need someone to be informed at all stages of the process. This can be the own staff of the donor or consultants that are recruited to follow up on projects.

In all sorts of funding approaches, consultants can be a valuable resource when projects demand too much time to follow up on them or staff is short for it. This happens with many foundations, but also with many other donors (e.g. the European Commission keeps distance from management and uses consultants for monitoring projects).

Taking part in social events related to projects is important, but also a close follow up on projects on the ground, in order to understand the real situation and the local stakeholders, showing empathy for the work done and being more able to find solutions.

Building trust and discussing problems openly with partners is however not the same as saying that strict rules of a donor are necessarily more flexible. However, transparency will make negative decisions more acceptable and reasonable if all are open to discuss.

The main message for donors and partners is to promote funding approaches that favour a trustful and open relationship, where adaptive management and troubleshooting become just natural things to be done. Despite a bigger investment in resources and funds, adaptive management and good troubleshooting on the right moment just increases the chances for a bigger conservation impact.

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