A final reflection [on the execution of the project]

So, how was Monchique? I think it’s time for a last [update: penultimate] reflection.

Telling people, friends and family about the program, brings up mixed emotions and thoughts. For me, it has been absolutely brilliant and I like to think it has helped the rest of the group too, either in gaining experience or confidence to make life changing decisions, whether that’s getting trained for a different job or gaining the confidence to start life in a different spot of on earth, getting involved in interesting projects and hopefully feeling more like a rounded person at the end of the process. Of course, the black sheep and obvious catch that might make the project seem useless and question the use of European funding, are the questions: So what did the community gain and how did we make a difference in Monchique? Was it a sensible use of European funding? And was the mobility of the participants increased and how?

Frankly, the answer to this would probably be No if you looked at the whole group altogether, of which the majority treated their time in Monchique as a paid holiday; went by the title ‘Sustainable tourism’ or the pictures that went up on facebook from the trip, depicting numerous parties, going canoeing or spending a week in Lisbon. The perception of ‘real work’ of course differs, especially when talking to Londoners or parents for that matter. But even in Portugal within the group: If you were not holding a spade in your hand or did some kind of house work, and were sitting on your computer, you were assumed to be ‘skiving’.

But let’s look at specific issues to learn from as in principle projects like this and similar other funded projects are beneficial, but are dependend on whether someone is cashing in on them and the detailed implementation and execution of each individual project. Problems can rarely be pinpointed on one single issue, but are rather made up of different situations coming together:

Setting wrong expectations

I was in the initial batch of interviews at the Hub Kings Cross. Already there, the fuzzy approach was apparent ie the project outcomes weren’t specified. …. I was convinced I would learn about sustainable building and tourism offers and get to know the other side of service design a little bit by mingling with customers myself either at a guest house or different service offer like executing a walking tour or activity. For a designer, the fuzzy front end, is a familiar terrain: just keep an eye out for opportunities and listen to your gut feeling, but this also means going against the flow of the somewhat assumed plan once that’s been created. As a consequence, Novas Direcoes was born from joined efforts of the group. Some others expected to gain full time work experience in tourism or as a chef, others were looking for an opportunity to help the community to leave something behind, others were just up for having a nice time. Probably through ticking off application sections, making sure the funding for this project would come in, a mix of messages was communicated: ‘sustainable tourism‘ as a project title. ‘increased mobility’ and ‘self development‘ as core objectives for the Da Vinci Program together with an additional qualification in customer service level 3 (NVQ). The partnering organisations receive labour and funding! to develop their businesses. The town gets to know that there is this project happening and wonders about how they will benefit?!

Insufficient support

In one of the earliest blogposts: A medley-ed group, I already draw on insufficient planning, improper briefing, too little goal setting and inexperience of the partnering organisations to be let loose without support other than fictional deadlines to submit written plans or spread sheets. The trap: Thinking too big and not being prepared sufficiently, is easy to fall in. Basically no one really knew what to expect, the local coordinator was inexperienced and too few wanted to be voluntary leaders to take charge and drive the group and project forward (most group members were too young). To execute this role from within the group, as Julia and I attempted to do, was not reasonable, as firstly we were not getting paid to do this rather important job, and secondly we were part of the group, hence the sense of authority, which most of the group needed, could not be provided. In terms of supporting the partnering organisations, there was little sensibility whether the partnering organisations would be suited to take on 7 or 14 volunteers at a time or be supported in gaining the experience to do so together with the group, afterall managing people is a hard job whatever their age is! Lastly, if this project was about ‘mobility‘ ie. new job opportunities at home or in the country of exchange, there was no support from the day of return. Even some psychological support may have been adequate in some cases and situations to define tangible next steps of what to do with the blank canvas of life and help with taking control and decision making.

The weird logic of paying a company to take on unpaid staff

There is just something wrong about all organisations involved receiving a big share of the funding money irrespective of what actually gets achieved as an outcome. The participants earned 85EUR a week from which food, and personal expenses were payed and in Max’s case, as stated in his journey, 80% went on booze in the local bar. So overall as a group with a duration of 13 weeks this comes to about 15,500 EUR which is less than what most of the organisations got, to provide a meaningful task and ‘entertain’ their volunteers. If this money had been directly invested into the projects making a noticeable difference and ‘achievement‘ to the group, it wouldn’t be so  worthy of criticism. Instead, insufficient tools were bought to accommodate the entire group, and there was no funding for the end of project event which from the onset was expected.

How about an allowance on project and task basis to provide more incentive to get things done? Participants rather than earning money irrespective to what they do, earn money through specific tasks with the partnering organisations or can apply for funding to create their own project which benefits the community, with the requirement to show outcomes. In this particular case, there may be a high risk of failure. ie no outcome, e.g. through the lack of experience. If that’s the case the focus should be on reflection and the learning outcome, if it’s successful the participant will have gained new confidence to follow their dreams or even become an entrepreneur.- would this be a sensible use for European money? I’m not saying that this would be easy to do or not add a complicated funding and support structure, but it would provide motivation, prevent just ‘holding hands open’ and hopefully provide opportunities to learn life lessons in a safe environment.

Quality control, the European funding way

Even though, one may moan about filling in a mid and end of project evaluation form, it’s kind of needed to regulate the flow of funding in some way. But one may argue, it’s not asking the right questions! Have a look at my end of project evaluation form. Participant Report – end of project evaluation. In the evaluation there was no focus on achievement. It only checks whether attitudes have changed and to really evaluate this I question the approach of a questionnaire!

Whatever you do, value the participants and celebrate project outcomes

Considering the mixed bag of messages from the onset, transparency is needed to muffle voices and prejudices – communicate progress, make connections, collaborate beyond the initial set of partners and surprise the people listening in. Communicate the skills and the best the participants have to offer! If the majority of the participants are incapable of formulating what they are good at and hence lack confidence, interest needs to be created and ensured that volunteers’ work, gets appreciated and valued, to break away from this negative energy spiral. Organisations who take on volunteers should be interested in the skill set each individual which he or she is bringing along, trying to make use of it and challenge the participants if they are up for it. Afterall, nothing can be lost, only gained! As an example of how not to treat volunteers: when we visited, the Christian bird conservation place Arocha, we as a group were treated like unskilled labour, probably caused by wrong communication and lack of ‘selling the group’, there was a lack of appreciation of what the group as a whole had to offer and we weren’t even fed lunch to give something back in return for the half day’s work we did there.

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