Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Exit strategies, … again.

Photo by Anteneh Aklilu


As I looked into several Requests for Proposals recently, I noticed again how little time organizations and their consortiums are given to put a proposal together. This is unfortunate as there is often too little time to facilitate a participatory design process, that includes the communities and beneficiaries of the project. When responding to a request for proposals, we then typically put a design team together, study the requirements and the outline of the proposal format, divide tasks amongst the team members and begin the process to beat the deadline to send in the proposal. In our enthousiasm and hurry, we often overlook to design and budget for matters to take care of at the end of the project period. A project proposal will be far from complete if we don’t include all it takes to wind up a project in a sustainable manner. I should therefor like to refer to a publication “What We Know About Exit – Practical Guidance for Developing Exit Strategies in the Field” of the C-SAFE Regional Learning Spaces Initiative* by Alison Gardner, Kara Greenblott and Erika Joubert.

Three basic approaches to Exit Strategies are outlined. They are: 1) phasing down, 2) phasing out, and 3) phasing over. Criteria used to determine when to exit programs vary and they can be grouped into three general categories.

1. Time Limit; 2. Achievement of program impacts; and 3. Achievement of Benchmarks

Further, implementing exit plans in a gradual, phased manner is recommended, as the staggered

graduation of project sites can contribute to sustained outcomes by applying lessons learned from

earlier sites to those that come later. Lastly, after phase over or program phase out is complete,

continued contact with communities will help to support sustainability of outcomes.

From the guidance, we learn that there are numerous challenges to developing and implementing Exit Strategies and some suggestions on how to address these challenges are proposed:

Drought: The recurrent cycle of droughts (and floods) presents repeated shocks to communities. These shorter cycles leave the rural poor barely recovered from the last onslaught before another arrives. This presents a particular challenge to planning and implementing Exit Strategies. To combat the effect of these shocks, it is recommended to focus on enhancing community resilience especially in areas prone to recurrent natural disasters, and conduct risk assessments and develop action plans to mitigate future shocks to food security and livelihoods.

Funding / project cycles and the uncertainty of future funding: The funding / project cycle can

force an exit even when the organization and/or community are not yet ready. As the project closeout date nears, uncertainty about donor support to a proposed follow-on program poses further constraints. Concerns about job security for NGO staff and continued support to local partners cause attrition and anxiety until a budget is approved – which is often many months after a program’s proposed start date has come and gone.

To address these issues, contingency plans for the various funding scenarios (including fundraising

for complementary funding) are suggested, ensuring that the program is not 100% reliant on one

donor. Keeping staff informed as plans change is also important, giving as much notice as possible

when budgets for staffing are in jeopardy.

Belated planning of an Exit Strategy: When an exit is not planned and designed from the beginning of program implementation, it can lead to uncoordinated and haphazard implementation of exit activities near the program’s end. In this scenario, the opportunity to monitor and track a community’s progress (toward graduation) over time will be missed, as will the opportunity to develop strong linkages and partnerships with local organizations over time.

Lack of resources/funding restrictions: When an Exit Strategy is not planned /budgeted for from the beginning, an NGO may not have sufficient resources to implement the subsequently identified exit activities.

Need for training/improved understanding among staff:

Thinking about and formulating Exit Strategies is new for many NGO staff and there is a need to dedicate resources to training staff and facilitating the development of their Exit Strategies.

High turnover of staff: High turnover among NGO staff, as well as local partners, negatively

impacts continuity and service provision. In this context, additional resources are required for

repeating training and capacity building on a regular basis. High turnover can be especially difficult

in terms of Exit Strategies since those partners who are initially targeted for assuming responsibility of program activities may not be present when the program exits.

Lack of volunteers and local partners to phase over to: The limited number of available volunteers, and the heavy burden already borne by most community volunteers, can hamper the implementation of exit activities. The implementing agency also may not be able to identify an appropriate local organization to phase over their program to. Early planning for exit may help to address this, however, lack of volunteers and an appropriate organization may be the reality (and thus one of the challenges) in some communities.

Continued supply of inputs: In many cases, the exit plan relies on a continued source of inputs (i.e., seeds, incentives for volunteers, etc.) that will be available after your exit. Securing a reliable source for those inputs is certainly a challenge and could make or break your Exit Strategy. Again, planning for exit from inception will help provide time and a network for provisioning inputs at a later date.

Limited follow-up capacity: To measure the success of an Exit Strategy, it may be necessary to

conduct a post-project evaluation — ideally several months after the project has ended. It will be

important to ask: “Is the partner organization (who assumed responsibility for activities) continuing to meet its obligation to the beneficiaries?” And, “How can you be sure that other stakeholders are holding to their commitments i.e. Are government agencies continuing to provide technical support?” But how does the sponsor continue to monitor and follow-up with partners once the activities are phased over, the grant is closed, and funding is no longer available?

A staggered exit from communities or activities will allow you to gauge the partners’ and other

stakeholders’ ability and commitment to meet their obligations, provide opportunities to gauge the

success of your Exit Strategy on a limited basis as you can learn from the communities that are exited from earliest. It may be necessary to solicit complementary funding for post-project follow-up with partners, and a post-project evaluation several months later to assess whether the activities and outcomes were indeed sustainable. It may be possible to write these costs into subsequent project proposals, since the learning achieved from the exercise can be applied to the subsequent project.

*The C-SAFE Regional Learning Spaces is an Initiative by CARE, World Vision, CRS, ADRA and USAID.

Ton Haverkort


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