Learning from the Past: How the "Project Cycle Approach" Can Help Solve Obstacles within Programs

mgr_toolkit_clipartWe're always excited to share new approaches and strategies to add to your ever-growing collection of tools for global development efforts.  The accolades accomplished by our grantee partners result from dedication and determination, but also from strategy and know-how.

The best place to look for potential solution ideas is likely in our past. In other words, rather than starting with a blank slate, we look to similar projects that have been implemented before and use that model to guide our actions for the new project.

In this way, we, as organizations, are very similar to individuals in our learning. We don't want to reinvent the wheel every time we want to drive. As organizations share knowledge over time, we begin to see a global community that reaps the benefits of shared “best practice” strategies, constantly learning from our past in order to build a better tomorrow.

With this sort of retrospection in mind, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and CARE encourage a learning-based toolkit for what they refer to as “The Project Cycle Approach.” The ultimate goal of this approach is to help support and advance the work that community based organizations do in developing countries. This exciting set of tools helps to promote a set of systematic steps that organizations can tailor to their specific needs, and at the same time provides some structure on how to assess a problem, implement a solution, and evaluate its results. Evaluation is crucial in that it informs any future iterations of the program. And that's where the learning happens.

The Project Cycle Approach in a Nutshell

The toolkit hones in on 5 key stages that help organizations successfully attain their goals. And while goals may vary across people, situations, and time, the set of guiding principles and steps involved provide some structured mini-goals to help the project reach its full potential. 

  • Stage 1: Assessing the needs of the community and the degree of community involvement.
    • What is the problem that must be addressed?
    • Who will play a role in this venture? 
  • Stage 2: Developing a specific plan to attain project goals, including tasks and sequences of events.
    • What needs to be done?
    • What kind of time line best suits our needs?
  • Stage 3: Implementing strategies in the community and continuing to engage in ongoing monitoring.
    • How can we employ our strategy? What resources do we need?
    • How can we best supervise this change from our vantage point? 
  • Stage 4: Evaluating the costs and benefits as they relate to project goals, namely through the interpretation of data. 
    • Now that our action plan has been put to the test, to what extent did it help us accomplish our initial goals?
    • Can we empirically see any change for the better? And by how much?
  • Stage 5: Learning from the project and evolving conceptual approaches to goal attainment.
    • How could things have gone better? 
    • In light of the empirical analysis of data, how can be begin to narrow the gap between our desired outcome and what we are actually seeing?
    • How can we improve our strategy to more effectively reach our goals? And how do these improvements translate into specific actions or efforts for future iterations?

The project cycle toolkit reminds us to be systematic in attaining community level goals because we need to be able to articulate to our constituents a clear line between problem and solution. More importantly, though, this approach prompts us to learn from our current situation to make improvements in future work. Our efforts should not be thought of as isolated stabs in the dark.

Instead, the work we do is cyclical and develops over time as we grow and learn from our obstacles. As individuals do, organizations age and evolve over time: They become wiser and more effective with knowledge and experience, and are constantly reflecting on previous iterations to inform their present and future situations. We are constantly learning from ourselves retrospectively, and from others vicariously, to ensure that our programs are continuously evolving and making the most powerful impact on the communities we serve.


The 96 page handbook details specific strategies that facilitators can use in workshops: Room layout, handouts for participants, 29 adaptable activities with instructions, and facilitator notes.

To view the toolkit and adapt it to your community-based organization efforts, click here: http://bit.ly/1mI0LLT