To increase flexibility, some funders include an inception period for projects. During this formative phase, the program might review its scope and objectives, identify any required changes to activities or methodology, carry out preliminary data collection activities, identify stakeholders, assess major challenges to the project, refine budgets, and develop measurement, evaluation and learning plans. The findings of this phase are agreed in an inception report, to ensure that all parties involved understand their roles, activity timelines and any compliance requirements.
This period of increased flexibility offers a great opportunity to bring stakeholders on-board, refine the Theory of Change, identify critical assumptions, update MEL plans and logical frameworks, develop costed work-plans and agree decision making processes.
What to do:
Make learning an explicit program component
- Put particular emphasis on learning.
- Ring-fence time and budget for learning as an explicit part of a program.
- Build in ‘Pause & Reflect’ sessions so staff can take stock of learnings and translate into action plans.
- Ensure insight from data collection activities flows to all staff, not just the research team.
Use a Theory of Change as a tool for iteration
- Take the time to review the Theory of Change. Use it as a tool to identify areas of uncertainty where testing and iteration could be particularly fruitful.
Build in ongoing insight, not just endline M&E
- Build closer working relationships between research and implementation teams so feedback can more readily be acted on.
- Write into the grant feedback loops that will provide continuous insight to inform critical decisions and enable step-changes in understanding.
- Focus on collecting data that can inform ‘decision points,’ or that can illuminate key steps/assumptions in the Theory of Change.
- Start with the decisions staff need to make, then work backward to find data sources that can inform those decisions.
Define goals but leave room to flex activities
- Prescribe final outcomes but leave activities and intermediate outcomes as flexible as possible. Instead of a single final outcome, consider a range of acceptable outcomes.
Build flexible budgets that demand accountability, not predictability
- Create budgets that give room to adjust. For example:
- Instead of rigid budgets have budget envelopes
- Have broad budget headings with flexibility to adjust line items
- Leave some funds unallocated.
- Pre-define how the budget might change. Build in triggers, gates, or contingencies that specify when and how budgets can change or funds can be re allocated.
- Create processes for budget re negotiation. Consider whether these should be planned check ins or permitted whenever necessary. Naturally the grantee must provide justification for changes. Think ahead about what sources of insight or evidence might indicate program and budget changes.
Create ‘spaces of authority’ closer to the frontline
- Finalize roles & responsibilities and decision making processes.
- Simplify and shorten chains of approval, putting maximum authority at the frontline.
- Specify decisions that require donor authorization. All other decisions, by extension, do not. This makes grantee discretion the default, expanding the universe of decisions the grantee can take independently.