Lessons Learned

The most significant barrier that we had to overcome was constantly having to negotiate bottlenecks caused by limited resources, both of time and money. Though the vision of connecting residents of rural Virginia is a powerful and compelling one, in our (project team's) collective opinion the proposal underestimated resources (both time and money) needed to guarantee timely completion of all proposed tasks. Turnover in personnel compounded the problem as we had to spend some time getting new people up to speed. We found ourselves scrambling more often than we would have liked to find appropriate resources to conduct activities in a manner befitting that vision. Existing project staff including the Project Director, M. Mathai; VCE Project Lead E. Schlenker; VCE Research Associate P. Gibson; all VCE agents and Luke Ward, BEV Technology Manager contributed significantly more time to this project than was originally proposed. We are fortunate and very grateful that two retired VCE agents (D. Snead and V. Petty) volunteered a lot of their time to assist with this program. Bill Sanders, the incoming Director of the BEV, spent much of his time in the last quarter of this project assisting with project activities related to sustainability and spin off activities. However, despite these efforts, we could not bridge the gap between what we needed and the resources that we had at our disposal. To meet proposed objectives we had to add more resources to the project even though there was no grant funding to pay for them.

We have presented the lessons we have learned as a checklist that may be useful to others attempting a similar project. It includes things that worked well during this project as well as things we would do differently were we asked to do it with other counties. Particular emphasis should be given to the issues of interest and leadership within the communities being served. From the beginning, communities should contribute their own goals and objectives, identify their own leaders, and help write their own portions of any proposal. If early discussions and solicitations do not produce at least this level of interest and participation, adjust project expectations accordingly or reconsider your desire to move forward with that prospective partner.

The lessons are grouped by the four phases of the project in which they occurred (1. Project Feasibility Study, 2. Proposal development, 3. While waiting for funding and 4. Project implementation).

    Phase I - Project Feasibility Study:

  1. To ensure that the project has strong support should it be funded, have VCE agents assess interest in the expected outcomes among elected officials, business leaders, and community members.
  2. Determine if similar efforts are being proposed or undertaken through another project in the same communities. If so, ensure that the implementation plan has the flexibility to coordinate with those efforts.
  3. Residents of geographically disparate areas have different concerns that they would like to address. Including areas that are at large distances from one another makes it difficult to schedule regular visits by project team members because much time is spent traveling. Given a choice, work within regions close to one another, e.g. working within a Planning District ensures that the project ties well with the vision of the Planning District Commission.
  4. If you want activities to continue after the project funding is over, ensure the availability of local resources, training facilities, and technical support for the project.
  5. Phase II - Proposal development:

  6. Leadership teams that participated in the Take Charge process seemed to work more cohesively than those just adopting a county comprehensive plan or another visioning process. This doesn't surprise us since the vision and outcomes of the Take Charge came from within the group rather than from individuals outside the leadership team. Make it a requirement that the members of a community go through Take Charge or similar process to foster ownership of the vision and outcomes.
  7. As part of the proposal, develop a detailed implementation plan for what you're going to do. If you're counting on volunteers for local leadership, be extremely specific about what's required from them in terms of time and skills. Make sure that some members of your project team are proficient in gathering data and related information for the reports that have to be produced as part of the project.
  8. Present the implementation plan to potential volunteers and recruit individuals who have time and motivation and who commit to actively participate.
  9. Recruit interested people new to civic activities as opposed to those who are already serving on various committees and professional organizations that require significant amounts of time. Try and involve senior citizens and high school seniors since they have more discretionary time on their hands than those who are employed on a full time basis.
  10. If you can't get passionate local advocates, reconsider both your choice of localities and your approach.
  11. Don't call the leadership team a 'Technology' Leadership Team if the intention is to train non-technical individuals to understand technology issues. It tends to discourage people with other skill sets ' writing, marketing, fund raising, etc. because they don't consider themselves 'technical' and may think they have nothing to contribute.
  12. Include adequate funding in the project budget for ongoing marketing and publicity efforts.
  13. Volunteers tend to find or have other interests and commitments. If the project requires a large number of volunteers (as ours did) find ways to keep the number of volunteers at a healthy level to ensure that one or two people are not expected to carry the whole load.
  14. Ensure that decisions made in the communities about match funding are binding for the duration of the project. Otherwise, an incoming set of elected leaders could vote not to continue the funding.
  15. Anticipate turnover in paid project personnel. Ensure that the implementation plan is well understood by all involved and make provisions for bringing new members up to speed without losing momentum or causing significant delays.
  16. Clearly identify as part of the proposal any benchmark measures, their baselines, requisite data, and the method of analysis. This will give you an idea about how easy or difficult it will be to meet your evaluation requirements at the end of the project.
  17. Ensure that the implementation plan includes a methodology for ongoing data collection against benchmarks.
  18. Emphasize sustainability. Create buy in and get commitments from local IT specialists and others capable of providing guidance and support in technical matters in each region so as to minimize dependence on some central organization. These individuals and organizations will be needed to sustain this effort once the project is over and personnel paid with project funds move on.
  19. Ensure that each locality has an appropriate facility for conducting hands on training. People who are not familiar with technology learn best by trying things out for themselves, making mistakes, asking for and receiving help and retrying those things until they understand what they're supposed to do. In communities where residents don't have computers or network access, a community technology center would be an ideal solution.
  20. If training is an important part of the project, ensure that individuals with training experience for the target audience are part of the implementation team. Draw up tentative training schedules as part of the project proposal so that travel times, holidays, winter travel, etc. are all factored in.
  21. Propose activities in which people without a technology background can participate and be assisted by others who have the background.
  22. Include funding for project personnel to meet periodically to share experiences and materials, exchange stories, and review progress and lessons being learned.
  23. Carefully review the capacities and capabilities of proposed technologies to be sure they are appropriate for the intended audience, e.g. HTML training of neophytes can be very challenging.
  24. Ensure that technology to be deployed is production quality and ready to be deployed as soon as word of funding is received.
  25. Plan from the beginning for sustainability: Include funding and other provisions for a year or more of efforts beyond the official grant period. With each participating community, research other grants and funding sources. Find matching funding sources within the community to increase buy in and participation. Build activities into the proposal that lend themselves to sustainability.
  26. Phase III - While waiting for funding

  27. Ensure that you're ready to go as soon as the funding for the project is received. Consider no (or low) cost activities that can be started as soon as funding is received, i.e. organize publicity meetings with refreshments donated/sponsored by a local business.
  28. Write newspaper articles, design posters, book marks, business cards and other publicity material and have them ready to go as soon as approval of funding request is received.
  29. Create a list of additional material (other than publicity) that may be needed once the project is funded, e.g. guidelines for content on community network sites that have been reviewed by legal counsel to ensure that no laws were being broken.
  30. Phase IV - Project implementation:

  31. Ensure that local leadership groups have the means to communicate with each other directly instead of always having to go through the (central) project leadership. Ideas that worked in one region can then quickly be transmitted to and acted upon in another region.
  32. Report writing, usually an integral and unavoidable part of a grant funded project, has considerable overhead associated with it. Set up report templates that include all relevant data needed for project reporting purposes from the granting institution. Distribute these requirements information to local teams when the project begins and set up a means for them to submit data periodically so that end of quarter reporting includes all relevant data, e.g. at the end of a leadership team meeting have a way for the minutes taker to submit the minutes at the end of the meeting or the next day with minimal overhead.
  33. Reiterate project goals and deliverables on a regular basis to keep local leadership teams on track and aware of the big picture.
  34. Convene regular status meetings of the project leadership team and invite representatives from the field to participate in these meetings. Keep them brief (sixty to ninety minutes) to allow maximum participation.
  35. Ensure that information gathered from the reporting process is acted upon in a timely manner so as to create a support structure for agents and others in the field to assist them in overcoming obstacles that they encounter during the project.
  36. Continue to facilitate Take Charge (or similar) sessions on a regular basis, e.g. every six months to ensure that the leadership team has the means to evaluate its progress and modify its course midstream if need be.
  37. Pair VCE agents with a member of the local leadership team who serves as team leader. Send communication and clarification about the project to both individuals to both relieve the burden on VCE agents and reinforce the idea of local control. Rotate this position if needed to give every one interested an opportunity to share in this work and not put too much of a burden on one or two individuals who don't know how to say 'no.'
  38. During the last six months, engage leadership teams in discussing sustainability strategies to ensure that project objectives have a way of diffusing into the community at large. Come up with and activate strategies to sustain the momentum generated during the implementation.
  39. Maintain a Web site for the project and keep it up to date for participants, project team members, and interested parties to view. This is a source of free publicity and a useful tool for others considering a similar effort.

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