How to Make Sure Your Grassroots Project Can Survive after You Move On
So you launched a grassroots project. Maybe you even scored grant funding. But how can you make sure your project will last for years to come?
Mercy Chikoko, a 2000–01 AAUW International Fellow and 2002–03 AAUW International Project Grantee has sage advice for you. It comes from experience working around the world on her own project and with organizations such as Oxfam, UNICEF, Action Against Hunger, and the World Health Organization.
Chikoko, who is from Malawi, earned her doctoral degree in family resources management in the United States. She applied for an International Project Grant (formerly called a Home Country Project Grant) because, during her dissertation research, Chikoko noticed the excessive time and energy Malawian women had to spend to gather wood for cooking and preparing food. Her Fuel Wood Efficient Stove Project trained Malawian women to use a box filled with hay, straw, and dried maize leaves to insulate pots that had already been brought to a boil. Insulating the heated pot continues the cooking process while conserving wood that women often had to travel long distances to find.
A year after the project was launched, Chikoko’ s trainees were independently running things and sharing their knowledge of how to use a fuel efficient stove with other community members. How’d Chikoko do it? And what advice would she give to help others make sure their programs are sustainable, even after the founder moves on? It may come as a surprise that her recommendations have less to do with securing a steady flow of grant funds (though that is always helpful!) and more to do with thoughtful implementation strategies. Drawing from her years of project management experience and her own International Project Grant implementation, here’s what Chikoko recommends.
1. Partner with local organizations and institutions.
- Collaborating with local groups that are involved in similar work can strengthen projects long term. Chikoko worked with the Food Processing and Biomass Energy Conservation Program, a local organization in the Mulanje District of Malawi. They supplied invaluable knowledge and know-how to trainees on the creation and maintenance of low-cost, fuel-efficient stoves.
2. Make sure your trainees have diverse experience levels. Where possible, include participants with varying levels of experience in the training group, so that more experienced members can offer guidance and encouragement to those who are less experienced. For her own project, Chikoko notes that she gave considerable thought to the selection of each trainee. “I had to look for a group of women that I knew were committed, [that would] own this project [so that] even after I left, they would try as hard as possible to continue the project,” Chikoko says.
3. Use cost-effective and accessible materials. Try, where possible, to use low-cost and easily available tools so that the project can afford what’s needed to sustain itself without substantial funding. Chikoko adjusted the original design of her fuel wood efficient stove to include locally available materials. This minimized the need for constant big purchases. She even taught trainees an additionally cost-effective way of cooking rice by using just straw instead of wood for fuel.
4. Implement an exit strategy. Proactively work with trainees to give them ownership of the project. Setting clear and achievable goals, delegating, promoting a system of collaboration, and establishing clear and systematic methods all help to give trainees a clear path to follow after a project manager has left.
By leveraging the skills and interests of trainees and the help of local organizations, Chikoko developed a sustainable project that ensured that her project could create lasting change in her community. She is proud to have had the opportunity to put her research into practice in a way that contributes to her community instead of just taking data from it. “[For] most, research is extractive,” Chikoko says. “We go to communities, get information, publish papers, or advance our education or careers, but we rarely go back to address the need that was identified through research.” Chikoko’s project will likely be addressing women’s needs for years to come.