So what might ‘Beyond the Project’ Activities look like?

Some thoughts in response to yesterday’s challenge from Brady Mott. What might replace the project? On one level, it’s a self-defeating exercise – any alternative is likely to require spending money, staff etc and some kind of accountability. Boom – we’re back to projects!

But some projects can loosen the kinds of constraints that Brady describes, getting away from the dead hand of The Plan, freeing change makers to be more innovative, to spot and surf promising waves etc etc. Here are three ways to do that – I’m sure I can rely on you to point out lots of others:

Core Funding

There’s a huge difference between ‘here’s some money, along with 23 key performance indicators, and a set of project milestones/millstones and reporting requirements, all decided in advance and immutable’ and ‘we like what you do, here’s some money. Use it as you see fit, but please tell us what you do with it.’ That latter version can happen at different levels:

Individuals: As I wrote in Fit for the Future 2.0 (haven’t got round to publishing it yet, so here’s the final draft: Fit-for-the-Future-2-final-July-2018), ‘Inspirational and talented leaders and change agents repeatedly resurface in different guises and projects. So why not shift to sponsoring potential or actual leaders directly, rather than obliging them to invent projects to access funding? Yes, we’re back to good old-fashioned scholarships, but with a radical edge (the 100 grassroots women changemakers scholarship fund?). Could we imagine a mentored scholarships programme, so you link a Southern based experienced changemaker to a promising novice? Link them to training providers?’ Check out the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grants for an existing high-end version.

Cash transfers, whether small weekly amounts or one-off big lump sums, are another increasingly popular way of cutting the project strings.

Organizations: Every organization looking for money to run its operations prefers core funding to projects. Core funding gives them the flexibility they need to be agile, respond to events, move money to where it’s needed etc.

The problem for those handing over the money is a mix of accountability and trust. The donor wants to be able to show where the money is going, and if trust is low, projects are also a way to tie the recipient down to doing particular things the donor thinks might be useful. Core-funding is more likely when there’s a long-established relationship between donor and recipient, or some institutional common ground (eg between members of the same faith network). How can we build the relationships and trust needed to reverse the decline in core funding?

Governments: The largest scale variety of core funding is General Budget Support, through which donors fund developing country government budgets, but leave spending decisions up to them. The benefits and risks are much the same as for other organizations, albeit on a grander scale. GBS has fallen out of favour of late, as aid donors worry about maintaining support for aid with their own publics, parliaments and media – the potential ‘DFID bungs money to dictators, no questions asked’ tabloid headlines weigh heavy on politicians’ minds. What might enable them to rebuild the case for GBS?

Positive Deviance

Regular readers will know this is (or at least, may be) my next thing. I won’t repeat all the arguments, but here’s the gist from the most recent PD post’, which got dozens of great comments from readers:

‘The starting point of PD is to ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’ – the families that don’t cut their daughters in Egypt, or the kids that are not malnourished in Vietnam’s poorest villages. On any issue, there is always a distribution of results, and PD involves identifying and investigating the positive outliers, and seeing if/how the lessons of how they did better than the rest can be spread. In the famous case in Vietnam, identifying slightly different feeding practices in outlier households led to big nutritional improvements for millions of kids.

This differs from the ‘standard model’ of aid in two big ways: it focuses on success, not failure/problems – places where the system has thrown up solutions to a given problem – and it replaces, or at least minimises, the role of ‘external interventions’ such as aid projects. Bye bye White Saviour complex/salvation by outsiders. For that alone, I love it!’

I’m still talking to people and reading stuff about PD, but some of the ideas that are being thrown up include whether PD might be particularly suitable for fragile/conflict places where nothing else works, and whether it is best applied to individuals, institutions or kinds of interventions (PD of projects!).

Outcome-Based Funding

There are market-led ways to rearrange incentives away from projects, by rewarding what aid wonks call ‘outcomes’ rather than insisting on particular project activities. If you achieve something, you get the money, and we don’t mind how you get there. Many of them have been cooked up and promoted by the Center for Global Development, achieving various levels of adoption by aid donors. I’m often sceptical about these approaches, (that’s a subject for a different post), but they all fit the criteria for ‘beyond the project’ innovation, with links:

OK, that’s a few ideas from me. What else you got?

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7 Responses to “So what might ‘Beyond the Project’ Activities look like?”
  1. Stephen Golub

    I don’t have time to do this important topic justice right now. But in my experience, the project approach with its associated bureaucratic impediments is the single biggest obstacle to effective, accountable development aid. I won’t speak to massive investments of development funds right now. But for smaller initiatives, one far preferable approach is that which the better foundations take: use funding agency personnel based in a given country for extended periods to gradually develop grant portfolios, rather than relying on short-term consultants and ridiculous logical frameworks, and work with potential and actual grantees to provide flexible funding that is still financially accountable.

  2. David Johnson

    How about offering tools and tutorials to develop indigenous talent?

    Start with universally valuable concepts like sustainable infrastructure and reward anyone who shows up with tools and tutorials.

    If they demonstrate they have mastered the tools offer a selection of sustainable materials to use.

    Measure progress by number of skills acquired and operational sustainable infrastructure, not time to completion or money awarded.

    Track time and money but realize those metrics are proxies for talent, tools and materials.

  3. Jamie Pett

    Core funding for organisations gets us into the realms of trust-based philanthropy. The Whitman Institute do this really well (, as do the likes of Thousand Currents (

    I recently learnt about the STARS Foundation (over lunch with their strategic advisor). Their learning report ( shows how they select grantees and keep in touch while supporting core costs and giving freedom on how funds are used:
    “Flexible funding puts decision-making in the hands of the awardees, who determine how best to use the funding they receive and who retain the ability to alter their plans should circumstances on the ground change, which is so often the case. Capacity building support ensures funding is earmarked for strengthening the organisation as an institution, including staff training.”

    Of course this requires enlightened donorship

    • George

      Thanks again Duncan for catalysing this discussion.

      I think however that your ‘Beyond the Project’ ideas may not address the central dilemma of ‘projects’ as set-out by Brady Mott. He says:
      “The difficulty, though, is that the power to decide these conditions is always exercised by the powerful ‘haves’ – the donors, the governments, the NGOs – and seldom by the ‘have-nots’ – the people for whom these projects are ostensibly being created. The ability to drive the poverty-eradication process is granted entirely to the powerful, and stripped away from the powerless, further entrenching the power imbalance that projects are meant to overcome in the first place.”
      Providing ‘core funding’ instead of project funding for example still involves the ‘haves’ (donors and organisations) driving the agenda and the ‘have-nots’ being on the receiving end of their aims/initiatives. The same risk exists with funding individuals/change-agents.

      I suppose one way around this is to set a form of conditionality on who receives the funding, e.g. donors could demand that organisations receiving core funding must have a majority of board members from the places where the organisation intends to work (countries, regions, ‘communities’ (problems of definition with the latter)) or that the people/change-agents they fund must be from and still living within those places where they seek to bring about change. It would be a blunt/crude method I know, but perhaps it would be a first step. By way of comparison, I can’t imagine many current funders of women’s rights organisations would entertain the idea of funding organisations where the majority of leaders are men for example.

      But then of course we’re back to a form of ‘conditionality’ – is that always a problem, perhaps not?

      Maybe as you say direct cash transfers to individuals is a more effective way round this issue. Similarly, perhaps the online crowd-based funders which enable local organisations / change-agents to pitch for support from affluent folks around the world are another positive disruptor – potentially cutting out INGOs as middlemen. My own personal concern with these is that they can become very focused on change for individuals, shifting the focus away of systems and attempts to create systemic change.

      Another option, as you’ve discussed elsewhere, is to focus more on the interconnections between different parts of the world and ensure movements in the so-called ‘global north’ are adequately resourced to reduce/limit the impact of the ‘haves’ on both the ‘have-nots’ and themselves, e.g. campaigning to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, demanding more transparency and accountability in the sourcing practices of MNCs etc.

      But returning to the starting-point, perhaps we shouldn’t throw the ‘project-baby’ out with the bathwater. Whilst corrupted by many I’m sure, I still believe there is something profoundly important in the ‘participatory approach’ – practitioners/commentators like Robert Chambers keep the hope alive that ‘passing over the stick’ can be genuinely achieved. Perhaps there is a need for a return to these methods/practices and a more concerted effort by the ‘haves’ to integrate them into our organisational cultures (whether initiatives are delivered via ‘projects’ or something looser).

      None of these ideas of mutually exclusive. Could a combination of core-funding (tied to conditionalities around ‘inclusive’ organisational leadership) as well as genuine culture of and commitment to participatory methods, plus a balanced focus on addressing what we’re up to in the world of the ‘haves’, mitigate the shortcomings of the project modality? I suspect many INGOs would argue that they are already doing all this – perhaps its a smokescreen, or perhaps projects aren’t all bad….

  4. Sam Gardner

    Hi Duncan,

    Sustainable donor support is part of the sustainable development funding. This means that any funding option that is not including nudges for further donor support, under the form of a stream of decisions, regular donor highlighting, or flags waving, has long-term issues with continued donor support. This minister might love core, the next minister might prefer re-election more.

    In this regard, the Core funding for UN agencies is vulnerable. Less vulnerable is the support to DREF (the red cross federations’ flexible fund). Dref money is transferred, and the donor gets full visibility when the funding is assigned to an emergency as a bloc.

    It keeps the flexibility of core while providing the publicity the minister craves.

    So please, while discussing beyond the project, include sustainable funding options in the thinking.

    PS. Long-term funding has perverse effects: in the short term, you are safe. In the long-term, you lose the visibility of the regular contact with the highest level of decision making, which can lead to your project to fade from memory, especially if there are elections in between.

  5. MJ

    There is an obvious intermediate solution: programme funding. This is where we take a project and simply remove the end date. The donor commits to funding the programme for the foreseeable future while the results stay on target etc. In essence we transform the assumption that a project will not receive follow-on funding until the donor unambiguously commits, to a presumption that funding will continue to flow until such time as the project is seen to be no longer working. The key point here is that the implementing agency can plan ahead on the assumption that they will get the resources they need. Removing that kind of uncertainty will help implementers to focus on longer term goals over short term deliverables. Of course all the other variables that distinguish a good project from a bad one will continue to apply, so the more flexibility etc that can be shown by the donor the greater the chances of programme success.

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