Imagine this. Your boss asks you to work with eight countries in West Africa. The assignment: to support the establishment of practices for the effective and equitable operation of microfinance lending to small and medium size business clients in the region. He tells you it’s vital to the growth of the local economies and to the region as a whole.
That request is probably well outside the comfort zone of most project managers. It’s hard to image where you’d even start. But CESO knows. In fact, they do this kind of thing all the time, with limited financing, a small full time staff of fifty, and a core of seasoned Canadian volunteers. They deliver successfully, time after time, using what I call the six secrets of project prosperity.
Thanks to Leah Oliveira, Director, Communications and Engagement at CESO for the details on this story.
The mission of the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) is “to strengthen economic and social well-being in Canada and abroad through engagement of skilled and experienced Canadian volunteers working cooperatively with partners and clients to create solutions that foster long-term economic growth and self-reliance”.
As I recounted in my previous post on CESO, Stronger Economies, Better Lives, CESO focuses on helping small and medium size businesses (SMB’s) as a catalyst for growing individual and community prosperity. Providing funding to those SMB’s is an essential component of that strategy. Unfortunately, traditional lending organizations aren’t always interested or able to serve those needs. That’s where microfinancing comes in.
Working with its network of government and non-governmental organizations, private sector enterprises, clients and its own staff and volunteers on the ground in West Africa, CESO identified available and effective microfinancing services as a foundational need for continued SMB growth and development. While microfinancing was often available, the offerings weren’t regulated to ensure SMB clients were protected from abuse. That posed a potential risk to borrowers and thus a constraint on SMB viability.
The challenge, therefore, was to bring together the national microfinance institutions of eight West African countries to define, institute and administer policies and practices that would ensure safe and accessible microfinancing services throughout the region. Consistent oversight of microfinancing practices would enable lenders to achieve a reasonable return on their investments while providing SMB’s with access to the capital needed to start and grow their businesses without fear of abuse. It would also provide a unified, singular voice to work with regional institutions, governments, international partners, the regional central bank, and more broadly with the West African Monetary Union.
This program started almost twelve years ago and involved some fifty CESO Volunteer Advisors and other CESO staff over that time. Each assignment involved contact with current and prospective SMB clients or microfinance organizations along with other interested parties. The engagements would identify local needs and problems, potential future issues and concerns, current and future risks and opportunities, and potential remedies.
Over time, the outputs from these assignments were rationalized, assimilated into a broader body of knowledge that became a framework for collaboration across the stakeholders involved, locally, nationally and finally across all eight West African nations.
Those years of work culminated in the first annual general meeting of the West African Microfinancing Foundation in October of 2016.
Microfinance in West Africa is now a dynamic economic and social sector which empowers more than 9% of the total population in 8 countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) of the West African Monetary and Economic Union. In comparison, traditional banking amounts to 5.5%. According to the available statistics, at the end of March 2015, there were 724 microfinance institutions in the affected region, attracting more than 13.8 million beneficiaries.
Continuing assessment of ongoing performance will focus on the following metrics:
- Social return on investment,
- Outreach or improved local credit markets – how many clients are being served
- Collection performance – how well is microfinance collecting its loans
- Financial sustainability – is the organization profitable enough to maintain and expand its services
- Efficiency – how well does the organization control its administrative costs.
How Great Leaders Delivered
The six secrets that CESO used to achieve these great results are, in fact, the cornerstone of everything they do. They include:
- Mission, Vision, Culture – All of CESO’s operations are framed by their mandate established fifty years ago and mentioned at the start of this article. They are driven by local needs. Their main emphasis is always on strengthening and enabling local clients and partners through knowledge transfer and collaboration.
- Human capital – CESO’s focus is on building individual skills and capabilities in the private sector and supporting institutions. To that end, they select and assign highly skilled Canadian Volunteer Advisors to train and mentor local entrepreneurs and institutional staff to realize sustainable change. CESO has mentored and trained almost 6,000 people in their target communities over the last two years alone.
- The long view – We know that projects that are spawned by a strategic plan and guided by an organization’s strategic direction tend to be more successful on all fronts. So, it’s no surprise that CESO’s remarkable record of success can lay claim to a similar enabler. At least 85 per cent of CESO projects are conducted under the auspices of a Partnership Action Plan, including the microfinance initiative. The plan is developed by a CESO Lead Volunteer Advisor in collaboration with local partners. It provides the blueprint for assignments that will be carried out over the entire course of the multi-year timeframe. The remaining 15 per cent of projects are purposefully constructed under a “fee for service.” These projects tend to come from new, often smaller partnerships that serve in many ways as pilot projects for both CESO and the partner, many of which are developed into multi-year partnerships following the test project.
- Networks of Relationships – CESO’s Country Representatives look after business development on a country by country basis. They find and identify partners and clients, build and sustain those relationships, manage local government relations and liaise between CESO, the local, regional and national governments and Canadian embassies. The networks are formed and nurtured independent of any particular project. Yet, they are what allow CESO to frame the opportunities, engage the required stakeholders and launch initiatives quickly and effectively. The relationships, for the most part, are already in place.
- Partnerships – CESO’s partnership model is adaptable to different situations as well as being scalable to various sizes of enterprises and undertakings. The microfinance initiative involved the formation of partnerships across four levels in West Africa, with individual entrepreneurs, building capacity in local microfinance institutions, advising national micro-finance regulatory institutions and at a regional level with the West African Monetary Union. The overall partnership model facilitated and reinforced the formation and operation of those separate groups. That’s just the way CESO does business.
- Best practices – Every assignment and every project goes through a formal evaluation process with the participation of involved partners, clients and CESO staff. Lessons learned are formalized and add to the best practice body of knowledge to help improve future performance. CESO even has a formal position called a Knowledge Officer. People in this role are accountable for eliciting and sharing information and best practices and facilitate getting evaluative information back to CESO. If only every organization had a Knowledge Officer or two.
These six secrets to CESO’s continuing success are not generally what come to mind when one thinks about key project success factors. Nor are they always easy to implement in every project situation. In fact, most of these six secrets are typically beyond the scope of any one project. However, CESO’s track record demonstrates the power of the practices to produce consistently sustainable change.
So, be a Great Leader and put these points on your checklist of things to consider so you too can achieve great results. You might not be able to go all in on each practice. But perhaps going just a little way towards CESO’s secret six can give you that critical edge. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group (including the key stakeholder roles), the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors. You’ll find that CESO’s six secrets to project prosperity are included.
If you are intrigued by CESO’s mission and would like to learn more about becoming a volunteer advisor, at home or abroad, check out their website. It covers the skills they’re looking for and the steps involved to become a volunteer.
Finally, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens and published in this blog, don’t be shy! Send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, we’ll post it so others can learn from your experiences. Thanks
Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check – The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath – The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.