These days I focus on the numbers of the past year as I am building annual accounts reports for a few of the nonprofits I support. There’s a lot to learn from that and not just about the numbers (or the documents, as I wrote last time). In general, I enjoy looking back to learn for your next steps. Here is how I try doing this.


Let me be clear. The set of questions I share with you below, and the process of finding answers, is not intended as an official project evaluation. These are questions to discuss internally, and to use as a basis for developing new ideas for projects.

Questions (1)

For me, learning starts with open questions. Questions that may seem very simple. And maybe someone in your team will have quick answers. In that case, try to dig deeper and ask: how do we know this? What data do we have that can prove this? How could we validate this answer?

Questions (2)

I find it hard to focus when there is a whole long list of questions. I much prefer a few powerful questions that make my brain crunch. So, the set of questions below is short. Very short.

What did not go as planned?

Which part of the plan were we not able to implement as foreseen? Looking back at a year of Corona, it’s likely shorter to list the things that did go according to plan. Nevertheless, it is important to understand exactly what parts of the plan could not be implemented.

In the case of one of my clients, this would be something like this: the social group activities planned at our physical location could not happen due to COVID-19 measures.

What did we need in order to adjust?

Which things did we need so that we were able to adjust to a change in implementation when the original plan fell through? What resources did we need to enable us to pivot our approach? Often, people will think that money would be the answer. But that’s not necessarily the main thing. Maybe you needed flexibility from the donor to reallocate budget lines? Maybe you needed creativity in your team?

In the case of one of my clients, this would be something like this: we pivoted to social group activities and one-on-one contact online, which was new to us and to our target group. For this, we needed time, skills and equipment on our end. To make that possible we needed flexibility from our donors. But we also needed people who had an idea of what could be done, and where to ask for technical assistance.

However, we also needed interest and commitment from the target group. Because they needed to be willing to learn how to connect online. Something they were not familiar with before. This was really the key thing we needed, and the key thing for us to invest in bringing about.



What impact did we help create?

What were we able to contribute to with our work, despite changes of plan and setbacks? Which bigger goal did we help bring closer this year, with these projects and activities? This question is not about what we did (activities). It is not about what we produced (outputs). It is also not really about the results we generated. This goes to the deeper value of the work. The vision, if you will, that can speak to a wide range of people even if they have no technical knowledge of the field you are working in.

In the case of one of my clients, this would be something like this: we were able to contribute to quality of life of the people we served, who would have become highly isolated and lonely otherwise. We were able to keep and forge connections despite the challenges our target group faced in this time.

What more (impact) does our target group need?

This is the key question to help you come up with ideas for new projects. Given what you did and given what you contributed to in terms of impact – what else does your community need? Is the impact you contributed to lasting, or does it require maintenance? Does it require additional work to become sustainable? Did other needs come to light, as you were serving and pivoting?

In the case of one of my clients, this would be something like this: our pivot to online activities and entertainment has enabled us to reach more people than before. It is clear that the group of people we aim to serve is bigger than we worked with until now. Online activities will remain important also after COVID-19 measures will have ended so that we can continue to serve more people.

The feelings of isolation and loneliness we helped combat will return if no regular activities happen. So our target group requires us to provide regular group activities and calls, as well as one-on-one support online. This requires that we build a network of volunteers and supporters who can help us achieve this in our own, personal, participatory and bottom-up style.

Next steps

If you have worked through the 4 key questions:

  1. Brainstorm with your team about activities that can help fulfil the (additional or remaining) needs.
  2. Brainstorm with your team how these activities can be organized into a project.
  3. Don’t forget to include in your project space for the resources you needed to pivot – because changing plans is part of nonprofit life.

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