How to Start a Project

This is the first of ten posts inspired by ideas in the book, “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t”.  I plan to review it at some stage!  Everything I write under these headings are my own thoughts. This first post is about how to start a project.

What is a Project?

A project is a discrete piece of work and community development projects are usually started by local residents, who have a problem they want to tackle.  They may have approached their local authority or other agencies and found there are no resources, so their only option is to take it on themselves.

Businesses usually start a project to solve other peoples’ problems.  They won’t necessarily think of their project as a project, perhaps preferring terms like offers, products or services.

It is interesting to compare these two.  Perhaps, the business appears to be more altruistic.  Businesses certainly can be altruistic but they usually deliver their offers in return for money.  The community project is usually run by volunteers, who manage a paid worker or a team of workers.  Note someone gets paid for both approaches; the source of payment is different.

There are pros and cons to both approaches.  The community project is usually free at point of delivery and can target services for people who cannot afford to pay for them.  The business is potentially sustainable.  It aims to do better than break even and if successful can continue to deliver its offer indefinitely.

How to Get Started

Every project is different, so you need to tread carefully but there are three things you need.  You may need more than these but they all need to be in place for any chance of success.

A Market with a Problem

In community development, we don’t think about markets.  A market implies people who are able to pay for a service.  Some community projects do charge for their services but they are seldom conceived as businesses.

I’ve covered the need for a market with a problem many times, indeed my current Monday post sequence is about your market’s problem.  It is crucial you understand your market’s problem for the success of your project.  So, the market may be elderly people, who have loneliness as their problem.  They might have other problems, eg low-income, ill-health.  For whichever of these is the main problem, you must market a project that addresses the problem, eg befriending, advice or medical services.

An Idea

So, let’s run with loneliness.  The next thing you need is an idea.  You know you need some sort of befriending service.  How are you going to deliver that with the resources available to you?  Whilst befriending may be the primary need, according to your data, what else might your market need?

So, befriending could be through teams of volunteers who visit people in their homes, offering company whilst alert to other needs a customer may have.  Alternatively, it could be a lunch club.  People picked up, taken to a venue, given lunch and perhaps entertainment with an opportunity to meet others.  Or perhaps a self-help project where the customers draw on their own resources to build community.

An original and realistic idea will help you find resources.


Once you have an idea, you can find resources.  The first point to note is once you commit to an idea, it becomes easier to find resources because you and others know what you need.  Three main places to look:

  • Your existing resources. Many organisations have limited resources they can deploy to start new projects.  It’s worth noting what is available because once you choose an idea you may see value in things that you undervalued before.  See my sequence about community assets (scroll down).
  • What can you raise by announcing the idea? A business might seek partners with resources.  A community organisation might launch an appeal.  This might be for a pilot, to test whether an idea is in fact viable.
  • Seek external support, usually through grants. Businesses might be seeking investments.  Grant awarding bodies usually want evidence of innovation.  You need to be able to show how the idea uses local resources, delivers a needed service and has local support.  Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean a project has to be unique in every respect.  A lunch club can still be innovative; it depends on how you set about it and the unique characteristics of your idea.

So, get these three in place and you have a project.  The next thing to consider is how you keep it going!

In your experience, have you found you need anything else to start a project?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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