Anatomy of a Failed Project

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Probably the project I’ve worked on the most (or at least for the longest amount of time) but written about least on here is building an English-language library at my school. This is a typical project for a TEFL volunteer and something I’d wanted to do nearly since my first day at my school. In August I started recruiting books for the school library. This was an early, and valuable, lesson in how much people care about Peace Corps or charitable giving: many, many people told me that they would donate books, but out of all my contacts only one came through and sent books to the school.

That one person did, though, still leaves me feeling kind of hopeful. My former boss, Sallie Murphy from Murphy’s Loft Used Bookstore in my hometown, collected and mailed three boxes of books to my school in Macedonia, aided by a $100 donation one of my mother’s co-workers made after reading an article about the project in the local newspaper. Combined with a box or two of books my parents sent, and two boxes from book donation organizations, my school now has about three hundred English-language books in its library.

My school wanted more than just books, though, and more to the point: so did I. Although I’d been forced into paying the shipping fees on all the packages of books that arrived addressed to my school (about 250 denars, or $5, a box), when my school responded positively to the idea of writing a grant to get some more materials for the library, I wanted to believe that they would be more active in the project than they had been up to that point. In November I learned about a grant offered by an organization that works exclusively with volunteers and organizations in Macedonia, spoke with my school’s director and vice-director about the project and what we could apply for, and began to write the grant.

All. By. Myself.

Things were hectic at the time, and I managed to excuse a lot of things that might be perceived as failings of my school because I wasn’t doing a very good job of communicating with them. I spent most of November out of the school running regional spelling bees, and when I was in the school our meetings tended to brief, frantic, and focused mainly on the details of the spelling bee final and making sure that that project didn’t collapse at the last moment. Nevertheless, this ambitious project to purchase a computer and set up a library catalog program, to bring English-Albanian dictionaries and other reference works into the library, to organize books by suggested grade level and start a reading program which would test and track students’ reading levels – I continued writing it, because I wanted to believe that my school would get behind it, and because I couldn’t imagine what my last year at site would look like without this project to work on.

Over the month or so that I worked on this grant proposal, I brought drafts of the project proposal to school to be reviewed by the director and vice-director. That they never suggested changes or rewrites, but greeted the grant in all its iterations with praise and apparent eagerness to get things going, should have been a warning of sorts to me – and it was, I guess, except that I chose to ignore my doubt that this was a project they were wholly committed to, and kept on writing.

The last part of the grant proposal to be completed was the budget. I left this to my school, telling them that I felt it was appropriate for them to select the materials we would purchase for the project, as they would be more familiar with local stores, pricing and availability of books and other technical supplies than I would. Despite my repeated requests, they didn’t select the materials, and the day before the grant proposal was due I went to school to sit down with my vice-director and select the materials. Over the hour we spent at his desk we chose a computer, a library catalog program, and a couple of dictionaries; but much of this was done by me looking the items up on my laptop and getting his approval. When he had to leave to teach classes I asked him to email me the complete list of items for the budget, but when he wrote to me later that day it was to tell me that I should select whatever dictionaries I thought best.

This was probably the last point at which I could have put an end to the project, but again, I didn’t want to. I was beginning to suspect that the project would mirror the grant writing proposal, that I would be left with most of the work; but without the library project, I saw my second year as a blank. I didn’t have any other projects planned, and I squashed earlier ideas for regional projects I’d had after the nightmare of my regional spelling bee. I finished the grant budget and submitted the application, and when I learned in February that my school had won the grant I felt crushed rather than happy.

My school’s director announced the grant to a meeting of teachers, and the director and vice-director both seemed eager to start working on the project. We had a couple of meetings, privately and then with the school’s other English teachers, which I now remember mostly for the way my vice-director would write “$1000” on his notepad and draw circles around it. We had a time line that I’d submitted as part of the grant proposal, but we quickly fell behind. We had one meeting with the English teachers about starting the reading program, but I decided to hold off on this part of the project until the school had taken an active role in other parts of the project, such as acquiring the grant money and cataloging the library books.

Only, they never accepted the money.

Three months after winning the grant, my school has neither formally accepted nor rejected the grant money. After months of feeling in limbo, sensing that the school administrators were wishing I would give them a way out of this project, I’ve finally decided to view the project as what it is: dead. I’m tired of talking about this project as though it still might happen, of pushing the school administrators to contact someone at the bank or someone in the organization we won the grant from to learn how to deal with the complexities of accepting grant money from abroad, of feeling like it is my fault that this project has ended up where it has.

In many ways, or in the most essential ways, though, it is my fault that this project is where it is. When I sensed that my school was not committed to this project, but rather was committed to committing their volunteer to this project, I kept working. When no one at my school committed to making the budgetary decisions on “their” project, I kept working rather than seeing where this would end up: with my school expecting me (rather than their bank or one of the countless NGOs in Macedonia that accept grant money from abroad) to “get” them the money when they ran into the minor roadblocks offered by the Macedonian banking system. When I confronted my doubts about the value of putting a computer and cataloging system under the care of a librarian who by his and the director’s admission is not the man for that sort of technology, I kept writing the grant.

I made a lot of mistakes, but the biggest was in forcing myself to see exactly what I wanted to see in the months leading up to the grant application. If I were writing this grant again, I wouldn’t write a word of it until someone at my school had offered me details, in writing, of what they wanted this project to look like. I would not have written one line of the budget. I would not have pushed a project because it was interesting to me, that my organization couldn’t really commit to.

I waited until the beginning of my second year of service to write a grant. During training I’d heard a lot about the nightmare of grant writing, and that many volunteers regretted grants they had written early in their service. I think that part of me believed that because I had waited so long to write a grant, I had landed on something that my school would work on with me; I had after all taken the time to get to know the school, the teachers, the students, the community.

Time is not all it takes to write a successful grant, though, and in my impatience to come up with a project to fill my second year of service I ended up with a project that left me, for months, dreading going to school because I knew I would have to have yet another discussion with the administration about our failing project. The stance I took about a month after we won the grant, of “I’ll help you, I’ll tell you what to do, but you have to do the actual work” is one I should have taken much earlier; if I had, this grant never would have been written, and I may have found a project that my school was genuinely committed to. I suspect that in future I’ll look back on this second year of service with a lot of regret, because in my eagerness to come up with a project, any project, I wound up with one that didn’t (and couldn’t) work, and spent my second year at site doing little more than running English clubs and playing Simon Says to get kids excited for their regular English lessons.

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8 responses »

  1. Ah, the insight of hindsight. I know personally how hard it is to walk away after you’ve been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for even simple things to happen. Good for you for seeing what was happening and being strong enough to walk away. Hey, on the plus side, at least you’ve now written the “lesson learned” part of your next trimester report :).

    • ha, true, true. i think it would have been easier to walk away from this sooner if i had had more going on – part of me had this dream that i’d be able to stop saying i’m a “culture volunteer” and be able to point to a couple big projects i’d done. ah well. there’s always the glory of the 2010 regional spelling bee to look back on.

  2. Great post and good reflection on the Peace Corps process. So many of us volunteers are highly motivated and so end up in the same trap – I know I have a few times. Been thinking of doing a similar post about some of my projects.

    • right, i imagine the result of all this will be that i go back to the states stripped of motivation and get fired from my first job for telling my co-workers, “I’ll help you on this project, but only when I see a convincing level of interest and go-get-em-ness from you.”

  3. A well-written post and great follow-up comments. Especially valuable for the MAK16 group to read and keep in mind as we anticipate becoming active PCVs in Macedonia.

  4. This sounds a lot like the problems Anna encountered when she tried doing the same thing with the high school in Kumanovo. The school could just not get their act together to accept the money. It seems like the schools are often eager for money, but afraid of even the simplest strings being attached, even if they are typical accounting and banking procedures that you’d think any institution that deals with money would have to be ok with. I really hope you don’t look back on your second year with regret, however. You don’t need to have a big project, or any project even, to be a good volunteer and feel successful.

    • I’m sort of relieved to hear that Anna had the same problem. Most of the people I talked to about this grant are working with NGOs or opstinas (who better to discuss grants with than people who’ve written them?) and seemed surprised by the problems I was having. I’m glad that at least this isn’t something specific to my school – a reluctance to handle the banking procedures that somehow grew out of my own decreasing enthusiasm for the project.

      i’ve learned some good lessons from this i’m sure, and while it’s hard not to regret the project at this point i think in a few years i’ll think more positively about this second year of service. getting a chance to apply for & win a grant & then see it fail…maybe it’ll help me in some future job i hold.

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