Walking Away: What Happens When A Project Can’t be Completed?

Posted by Brian Carnahan, Betsy Krieger, and Taylor Koch on November 24, 2014

As children, many of us grew up hearing from our parents that we must finish what we started. Whether we stalled on a math assignment or scooped too much food onto our dinner plate, many of us were instructed to keep going until we were done. Certainly, this lesson provides some guidance for events to come later in life: beginning a new job that requires a lot of learning, keeping promises, and choosing the right college major (although we may have slipped up on that one). However, this lesson can't be applied to every situation, and can lead to problems when implementing a program, especially with funders.

When considering a new program or project, sincere deliberation on the goals, outputs, and outcomes must be conducted before embarking. The team leading the program or project must ask the tough questions, such as: can we really meet the goals given to or developed by us? Have we accounted for potential problems that may arise? Do we have strong contingency plans if these problems surface? Do we have the buy-in from stakeholders? Is this program easy to implement for both managers and staff members?

While some of these questions can be answered with confidence before implementation, program administrators can rarely control all of the potential problems that may arise in the future.

So what can be done when unanticipated issues arise? We administered a $13.5 million Housing Investment Fund (HIF) to capitalize innovative housing programs. A variety of projects have been funded, from a neighborhood rental rehabilitation program to assisting in the creation of a new city zoning code. Most HIF projects have faced unforeseen roadblocks such as the recent housing crisis, heavy staff turnover, and uncooperative stakeholders. Some were able to adapt to these changing circumstances and succeed, and a few were not. With over six years of experience in working with new programs and projects, we have gained experience in working with projects that have exceeded expectations, those that have underperformed, and a small few that have been terminated. In our time administrating the HIF program, we have developed some strategies to handle a project that may not succeed.

Although difficulties in your program might occur months or years after it began, developing reachable goals and realistic contingencies at the onset will leave your program better-equipped to confront problems down the road. Here are a few tips to help prepare for issues before they surface:

• Work with your funder to develop reasonable output goals at the start. Certainly, funders like to see low costs and high output, but having a dialogue with your funders about what is practical can save you from underperformance and potential repercussions. It may help to provide contingency plans in your proposal so that funders know what to expect if issues surface such as a declining economy, low program enrollment, staff turnover, etc.

• Focus on the relationship, not just the transaction. Some program administrators are too focused on obtaining funding and not enough on being good stewards of that funding. Keep in mind that program funding is more than just the money; it’s about ensuring mutual success and building connections with those who are authentically interested in your mission. This means that the better you communicate with your funder, the more amenable they will be to helping solve any issues that come up. In the long run, being open with your funder will boost your credibility and improve your chance for future funding.

Evaluating your program’s performance throughout its lifespan can also help identify problem areas earlier on. We recommend the following:

• Assess the program at its natural evaluation points. Most funders require progress reports at certain intervals over the course of the program such as quarterly, biannually, or annually. While preparing each report, you should describe the progress of each goal for the program. If the program is underperforming on certain objectives, discuss with your funder what is hampering success. Funders expect grantee feedback during the time immediately before and after a report is due. Use that time to discuss any program issues and your plans to address them.

• Don't avoid your funder. As experienced project managers and administrators know, programs are not self-correcting. Hiding the program’s underperformance now can lead to serious repercussions in the future. You cannot expect that conditions will improve. From our experience, programs that report very little tend to have larger issues that surface later. Remember that funders are often evaluated on the success of their grants, so their performance is dependent on yours. The funder has nothing to gain from a failed project; they will likely be rooting for you. So be transparent about your program’s activity.

Sometimes, however, even with the best planning and course corrections possible, projects can significantly underperform. In these circumstances, scheduling time to discuss program issues by phone or in person is imperative. Our advice:

• Be willing to explore significant changes to the program. Perhaps some key priorities cannot be compromised, but, is it possible to bring in another partner? Can the scope be changed without causing too many complications? For example, if the project originally aimed to rehabilitate and sell 20 homes, will the funder accept 10 homes? Not all funders will be able to adjust the scope of a project, especially if regulations prohibit such action; but be willing to negotiate an adjusted scope if it can be altered. The outcomes you wanted may not be possible, but a revised concept might be successful. The plan presented first to the funder may not be the plan that succeeds.

• In extreme circumstances, where the funder or program administrator sees no viable alternatives, ending the program may be necessary. In this case, the funder may want to recapture whatever funds were not expended. You may want to negotiate with your funder so that your repayment does not put the organization in an untenable position. Having to capitalize a failing project out of your organization’s pocket is a last resort. Be sure, however, to clearly articulate why the program failed. In your final report, explain any mitigating factors: were some issues outside of your control? Were you performing well until that issue surfaced? If you believe that your program did provide some positive benefits, highlight those, and be sure to underscore how you would change the program in the future.

It requires courage to decide to stop or change a project. Countless projects and programs may have had a different outcome if the sponsors, in partnership with funders, established realistic goals at the beginning, assessed the program mid-game, or were more open with funders about shortcomings. Remember, funders want you to succeed, too. If you’re open with them from the start, the project will likely be a win for you both.

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