Like most nonprofits you probably do not lack ambition or ideas. Which is great. But sometimes this abundance makes it hard to prioritize. It is challenging to decide on your project focus. In other words, how to find your perfect project idea?

What is a project?

A project consists of a coherent set of activities that lead to specific outputs and generate results which taken together fulfil a specific aim within a specific period of time. When looking at project funding, a project period is usually anything between 6 months and 5 years. Most often one or two years. If you are just starting out, you are likely to be able to get grants for periods of 6 up to 12 months.


Looking at the time frame alone you it is clear that when you start thinking about designing a project, you must start by choosing. Because you simply cannot do everything in just a year’s time. If the issues you are addressing with your nonprofit could be solved within twelve months, you or someone else would probably have done that already. Instead, you have defined your vision and mission and developed a strategic plan for the first three years. And during that exercise you probably already discovered that you cannot cram everything you want to work in three years.


So how then to choose a valuable goal and doable activities for, say, a one-year project?

To choose intentionally, you need criteria. (plus: a boatload of ideas and flexibility to not get stuck with one idea just because it came to you first).

Just some possible criteria

You could ask the community you serve what is most urgent and most important to them. That way you can be sure that whatever you will do will be highly relevant to the people you will do it for.

You can also look at your different ideas and try to see how they are interrelated. Which outputs and results do you need to have in place first? Which project can then be built on that first project? Etc. This approach focuses on seeing all projects as steps in a much longer process or chain of events. And on ensuring that what must be achieved first is actually also done first.

You can also check which ideas are more relevant to a donor that seems interested in working with you. This will help improve your chance at obtaining financial support.



Use your team

Discuss with your team what they think are good criteria to decide what project idea to develop into a proposal. Brainstorm project ideas with them and then score these against the criteria you have identified and agreed on. Discuss also how you can validate your options and assumptions with the community you serve and with key stakeholders.


Make sure you visualize the activities you plan to carry out, with the products and services (outputs) that will come out of these, and the results you intend to generate. Are all these elements geared toward achieving the goal you set? If there are activities that are not necessary to achieve the goal, take them out. If you notice steps are missing to achieve the goal, add activities to create outputs and generate results that will help you get to the goal.

Plan to keep track and learn

Once you are satisfied the project idea has all needed activities, outputs and results to be confident about achieving your goal, think about how you will make sure that you are on track. How will you check if there are side effects (positive or negative)? How will you be able to see that everything was done successfully and effectively? In other words, plan monitoring actions and set aside time for reflection, analysis and learning.

Final check

Now that you have selected the best idea according to your criteria and have outlined its key elements, do a final check. Is this really something that can be done and achieved in the set time frame? What are possible setbacks or delays that you might face? If these occur, how will that impact your activities, outputs or results? Make sure you give yourself some space for mistakes, delays, bad weather, illness, and such. Can you still get where you want to be in one year’s time? Adjust your plan if needed!

Go for it

Once you are clear on your idea and are sure it is doable for you and the team and realistic to achieve the desired goal, then just go for it!

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