Find out how a mistake—warped windows on a brand new school—inspired the dZi Foundation to strengthen its project evaluation and implementation.
We are proud of our mistakes. They are what help us learn to do even better.
At the dZi Foundation, we go to extra lengths to listen to community members, to learn from our past experiences, and to troubleshoot before we begin any project. However, despite this we still make mistakes. Sometimes a lot of them.
Case in point? The feedback we got from a teacher at school we helped build.
“It is so hard to close the windows of the school. We cannot do it alone; we need two people just to shut the doors and windows, because they are all warped,” she told us.
So, what happened? We found out that some of the wood used to construct a school building wasn’t adequately dried before use. We knew the “what”—damp building materials. And we wanted to know the “why.” As we see it, the most important aspect of working with a community is to devote the time and resources necessary to identify these mistakes, and to fix them.
A commitment to learning
Everything in our projects—as with most human processes—is in flux. A late monsoon can severely lengthen the time it takes to move construction materials, a drop in exchange rates can raise budgets significantly, political instability can halt all staff movement.
We strive to be a true learning organization, and to be flexible and agile so that we can respond to changes as they occur.
Our greatest teachers are the members of communities we work with—they have learned to thrive in tremendously difficult terrain, and to create highly-functional societies despite great poverty.
Our long term partnership has built a level of trust where community members are equally eager to point out our mistakes as they are to support our efforts to correct them.
We continually fine tune our methods to improve our impacts, and we spend enough time in each community to know the people, resources, and challenges in depth. This allows us to come up with solutions that are local, grassroots, and community driven.
Getting to the root of the problem
Recently, we made a massive organizational change to address a need that community members were voicing subtly over a number of years. As a U.S.-based organization, it made sense to pin our fiscal year to the Gregorian calendar, starting on Jan. 1. This made financial record keeping and yearly auditing much easier on the U.S. side, and we aligned our Nepal office records to match.
Accordingly, our projects all broke ground in January—right in the middle of the dry season. This then only allowed for five months of good weather before the monsoon rains began—not enough time to complete a major construction project like a school.
One unintended consequence of this short timeline meant that the wood used for construction often did not have time to properly dry after it was cut to specifications. This led to warped window and door frames that would only close with great effort.
Monsoon is also a time where community members are extremely busy working in the fields to plant their annual rice harvest.
Asking for local contributions to projects during this time would put undue pressure on local families, not to mention the fact that working in the rain is miserable.
Travel and transporting materials during the monsoon is extremely dangerous due to flooding and extremely slippery trails. Projects that carryover into the monsoon put local community members at greater risk of injury while contributing local materials.
The monsoon season poses challenges to dZi construction projects.
One of the major sources of learning for us is our project evaluations. We evaluate each project and collect community feedback to understand impacts, challenges, and what we could do better next time. And we’ve found that how we collect feedback is important. We now start most of our project evaluation meetings in our communities of service with an anonymous vote.
Meeting attendants use colored beads or beans to vote on key project elements, like overall project satisfaction or perceived financial transparency. We then use the votes to launch a deeper discussion about how to improve future projects. Typically, we do a few practice runs before actual voting begins to make sure everybody understands the process. (Download a sample evaluation form, courtesy of dZi.)
When looking at our evaluation data, we noticed that 70 percent of evaluations noted that the timing of projects was a significant challenge. In response to this clear message, we began the process of shifting our official fiscal year to match the Nepali fiscal year which begins in July. This required a fair amount of juggling and reworking our financial systems—but it was well worth it.
Good things happen when we listen
Changing our fiscal year, and in turn, the timing of our project cycle will make our construction work even stronger and more in sync with the natural seasons in our partner communities. Now, our community partners can prepare for the construction season by purchasing materials and preparing construction sites during the monsoons. This is followed by eight months of continuous good weather and the bulk of construction happening when community members have more time to contribute.
While something like when we choose to close our books may seem at the outset to have little bearing upon the lives of our community partners, it can actually make the difference between a door that opens or a door that is permanently shut. We are certain, as well, that this isn’t the last aspect of our work that will need to be reflected upon and improved. Indeed, we are looking forward to our next mistake—as this provides us with another opportunity to listen, act, and learn. And continually do better.
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