Planning an EU project is tricky. On the one hand, you want your project proposal to be approved, and so you must design it around the programme priorities. On the other hand, you want to ensure that whatever product or service you develop is in line with your company’s goals. Meeting both sets of objectives can be challenging, and can feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. So, how do you strike that balance?
I remember my first project application, which I wrote 10 years ago. I was sure that I had a brilliant idea! I wanted to create a generic language book for teachers of different foreign languages. I found out about a funding opportunity from the EU under what used to be called the Lifelong Learning Programme. I needed partner organisations from different countries, but I only knew Irish schools, so I blindly sent emails with invitations to schools throughout Europe. I accepted everyone who answered my email. I was too shy to interview partners and ask how they could contribute to the project. I was also too busy rushing to submit the project application on time to explain to my partners what the project was really about. It was only after I met the deadline that I realised that if it were approved, I would end up with partners who had never worked together before and who probably had no idea about their role in the project.
The project wasn’t approved. Today I know that if it had been funded, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to manage an international partnership. So even though I was upset and angry that my effort was wasted —something I’m sure any project writer can identify with — I’m actually glad that it was unsuccessful.
But why wasn’t it approved? I probably made many mistakes, as a novice project writer often does, but there was one fundamental flaw: the project did not match the programme priorities. I had designed the project with only my own company strategy in mind.
The silver lining in all of it was that this unsuccessful project opened doors for me in other ways. One of the organisations I had included in the consortium later invited us to be a partner in one of their project applications, which was successful. This provided me with an invaluable opportunity to learn from my more experienced project partners and build my capacity to write and manage projects. Since then I’ve learned a lot and have developed a love of teaching others.
Lesson I’ve learned
1. I don’t apply for projects only because the opportunity arises
Oh, I know the feeling when you read about a call for proposals. Sometimes, the money can be tempting, or perhaps you’ve done dozens of similar projects before and you know this one would be easy to implement, or maybe you want to keep your team engaged and challenged and such a project would do so.
However, it is essential that every project pursued should further your organisation’s strategic objectives. In other words, projects should help your organisation realise its vision. Maybe your company’s vision is to improve the world through technology, and the perfect call opens up that seeks to fund creative IT solutions for your ideal target group. In this instance, you should go for it! It’s so important to seize these opportunities as they emerge and I’ve seen firsthand the transformative effect they can have on an organisation. But what if the call is almost perfect, but focuses on the wrong target group, or would involve moving in another direction you have no intention of pursuing long-term? If this is the case, abandon the idea. If you are applying for funding only for the sake of receiving a grant, you will inevitably end up regretting it if and when you are stuck in a project that no one in your organisation finds stimulating or worthwhile.
Before I decide to write a project proposal, I try to answer two questions:
Why do I want to do this project?
How will it affect my organisation/school/company?
2. I don’t promise to save the world
In my early project applications, I was very ambitious. If I was planning to create software for seniors that would help them to enjoy a healthier life, I would promise to reach 2 million people. In retrospect, I now see how crazy this was! Most projects funded by the EU are there to test innovative ideas. Some of them will have massive impact. Others will have a more modest but positive impact on a small group of people. Try to be realistic with your goals. It’ll make your project application more reasonable and, if it is approved, your work as a project manager much easier.
3. I read the instructions carefully
EU calls for proposals and programme guides can be dense and painful to read. Sometimes it can take hours to get through all of the priorities and objectives. However, doing so will pay off. Firstly, requirements and documentation can differ significantly from programme to programme, and if you don’t want your project to be rejected because of a technicality, like a missing document, you must be aware of the rules and guidelines. Secondly, understanding the full context of the programme priorities is essential to be able to address them fully in your application. That might sound obvious, but it’s actually not! I’ve seen many project writers fail to fully address the programme objectives while simultaneously trying to say: “Hey, I know what kind of ventures you want to co-fund, and we will deliver what you need!”
If in doubt at any point, reach out to the funder and ask them to clarify any queries you may have. Review already funded projects to get an idea of expectations and criteria for success. The worst thing you can do is assume you know what they want and waste your time and effort on something that is not of interest to the funder.
4. I ask the project target group what they need
This is a tricky part. It might be tempting to come up with solutions (e.g. products and services) for what you perceive to be the problems of a specific target group. However, if we don’t belong to that specific target group, how can we really know what their needs are? We won’t know if we don’t ask. So instead of doing brainstorming with your project team, go out and talk to people who belong to your target group. Whether it’s older people, young people, students, professionals, or those affected by unemployment or poverty. Ask about their life and what kinds of obstacles they are facing.
Using the Design Thinking methodology is a great way to understand the needs of a group. This innovative, dynamic and human-centred approach to learning, cooperating, and problem solving is useful for identifying challenges, developing potential solutions, and refining and testing ideas. You can learn more about design thinking on the M-Powered website.
5. I spend a lot of time developing strong partnerships
While it can be tempting to partner with an organisation you don’t know very well because they sound good on paper, or because they would fill a vital gap in your consortium, it is not always wise to rush into a partnership with an unfamiliar organisation. While new partners can add a lot of strength to an application, how can you be sure that they will be easy to work with and will bring value to your project? Unfortunately, you can never be 100 percent certain as there is always risk in collaboration.
However, there are some simple ways to reduce your chances of entering an unsuccessful partnership:
- Get to know your potential partners. Check what kind of projects they’ve been involved in before.
- Maybe you know someone who has worked with this organisation before? Get some references.
- Organise Skype meetings. Get a feeling for who they are. Is there rapport between you? If not, reconsider collaboration.
- See how responsive they are. Do they answer your emails and provide all the information you asked them for? If the collaboration is difficult while you prepare a project proposal, it won’t get any better if the project is approved.
- Don’t be afraid to turn down a partner if you’re unsure about working with them. You don’t have to burn your bridges! Be respectful. But remember: if the project is successful, you will be committed to working with this organisation for an extended period, so choose wisely!
6. I plan a realistic budget
A realistic budget to me means that I don’t plan to buy a printer that is double the price of what I need, simply because it will be co-financed. (By the way, evaluators will suss this out instantly!) But at the same time, I’m a believer in proper remuneration for the time, effort, and skills of a project team. Designing a budget is all about balancing value for money for the funder, while also valuing your own team and the importance of their receiving decent compensation to the production of a high quality products and services.
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