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Five Great Questions to Ask Before you Start a Project

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Sometimes I see well-intentioned and well-funded projects go awry because people haven’t asked the right questions before they start.

Foundations and nonprofit organizations invest millions of dollars into projects that aim to improve people’s lives. These projects are developed by smart, well-informed people. At times, though, they might not have taken the time to ask a few simple questions.

These questions can help both multi-million projects that your organization is launching or smaller communications projects that are less costly but will still take up staff time.

You can help your organization achieve the results it wants—and show your value—by asking these questions

1. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? How does this fit into your larger goals and move your mission forward? What if we don’t do this? It sounds like such a basic question. But sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the momentum from a directive on high or because it seems like you “should” do something.

Jumping on the bandwagon with social media is one example. A few years ago, everybody was saying it was important to blog. These days Twitter is the big thing. But before you jump into anything ask why you are doing this.

Catherine England, a communications officer at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, recently wrote an excellent post at the Council of Foundations meeting about foundations diving into social media. In it, she wrote:

“In my mind (and perhaps this truly is in my mind only), we are asking the wrong questions.  The focus shouldn’t be on when and why to use social media tools but rather – WHAT are we trying to communicate? And with WHOM are we trying to communicate or engage? Once we’ve got a clear message developed, the focus is on finding your audience. If your audience happens to be online then chances are you should look for online ways to deliver your message.”

2. What are your assumptions? We all have assumptions that guide our work. Many of them are probably good. The problem is that we don’t question them, or ask what  happens if we’re wrong about those assumptions.


A senior program officer at a large foundation once told me that they had put a large amount of money into a communications effort to publicize the need for online personal health records that people could maintain and use as they moved from doctor to doctor.

Hospitals and doctors would be able to call up these records online as well. Foundation staff assumed that the communications effort would help patients and health care organizations understand why these records were important.


But they didn’t realize that they needed to make the business case for developing the infrastructure for these online personal health records, especially to employers and other payers of health care who would likely foot the bill. Simply communicating the availability and need for them was not enough.

“Any project carries within it a set of assumptions that need to be challenged,” the program officer said. “It’s important to be explicit about the assumptions you are making and be open to believing that they may not be correct. What would be the impact of those assumptions if they were not correct?”  

3. Who is your audience and what do they want? Businesses are experts at this because they must be to keep their market share and grow it. Foundations and nonprofits still struggle with this one. It is important to clearly identify the audience you wish to reach. Once you identify your audience, the easiest way to find out what they want is to ask them. What kind of information would be most valuable to them? In what form?

 I started asking this question to program officers at a large foundation in preparation for reports I was writing for them. Their answers sometimes surprised me and they always helped me focus my work. It’s a critical step but one that is often given short shrift.

4. What is the follow-up plan? Too often, foundation and government-funded programs end when the funding goes way.  Not enough thought is given to what happens next. What will happen three to six months from now? Or a year or ten years? What is needed to continue this work? How will you make a lasting impact?

 In her book, “The Blue Sweater” Jacqueline Novogratz speaks of her frustration of aid projects in Africa that had no staying power. She writes “We saw countless examples of well-intentioned projects gone wrong: Hundreds of maize mills, an important labor-saving device, lay in disrepair because the locals weren’t trained to fix them. Or the mills would lay idle because the village lacked access to the proper fuel to run them. Good-hearted people would build schools without thinking about the costs of hiring and supporting a teacher—not for months but for years—and the schools would stand empty.”

Think about the bigger picture of what you are doing and what is needed for any project to continue to make an impact on the people it is serving.

5. How do you define success? This a critical question to ask. Many foundations and nonprofits have started establishing clear targets for their projects. For example, a foundation may seek to reduce the incidence of diabetes among African-Americans by 15 percent by 2015. That is a clear and admirable goal. It also may be too narrow—and too easy to fall short of. If success is only defined by hard numbers and lofty goals, success will always be difficult to achieve.

 In addition to numerical goals, I suggest that foundations and nonprofits think of success in other terms as well. One is: How do you capture what you’ve learned and share it with others? Why can’t a measure of success be sharing lessons learned to help others in the field move forward?

Most groups struggle with sustaining their projects and their work. Another way to make a lasting impact might be to share the lessons you’ve learned from these projects to help the field learn and build from each other’s experiences and mistakes.

Spend some time really thinking about what success would look like. And try to think of more than one way to achieve a successful outcome.

To recap: Ask these five questions when you’re thinking about starting a new project and you’ll increase your odds of making the impact that you and your organization wish for:

  • Why are you doing this?

  • What are your assumptions?

  • Who is your audience and what do they want?

  • What is the follow-up plan?

  • How do you define success?

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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