Stage 4

Learning objective 4

How to take action?

You came back from your volunteering experience with new perspectives on the world and ideas about its problems which you want to share. You signed up to this course because you are motivated to make a change. You would like to start a project, or get active by joining a project or organisation working on issues you’re passionate about.

The main aim of stage 4 is to provide you with skills and tools to plan and realise projects in an effective and sustainable way. During this stage, you will get to know project management tools and get inspired by successful projects and actions. Leaving stage 4, you will have a more concrete idea of what you want to do and how you are going to do it.

Project management – how and why?

You can’t start to plan your own project (successfully) before knowing what a project even is. It’s as impossible as trying to find your way to a place whose location you don’t know. So let’s take this journey together and become wise project planners. We will start with basic knowledge about project management, before getting insights into practical tools and learning from other project experiences.

But first of all you might ask:

Why project management at all?

Maybe you are thinking that all this reading about project management theory and tools is quite an effort, even a waste of time. You might feel that you should not spend too much time thinking about and using management tools, losing sight of their real benefit for your project. However, critical reflection and use of these tools helps to avoid getting stuck in planning and ending up doing nothing, like the project manager in this cartoon.






Still it is important to take time for planning. Why is that? Good project planning will ask the right questions at the right time during your project – like:

What do I want to change?
Who do I want to address?
What do I need to do?
How much time do I need?


All these and many more questions will need to be answered at some stage in your project: it’s better to do it at the start rather than later when things start to go wrong. Project management is important because it ensures there’s a proper plan for achieving your goals with realistic expectations. It helps you to break down big ideas into small actions and to keep oversight of what has to be done when, how, and by whom. Additionally, it enables you to see successes and failures of your work and to learn from them for future ventures.

At this stage, there might still be a lot of question marks about your own project. But don’t worry – you are not the first person to have these. There are a lot of common questions that everyone has to think about and define at the beginning of a project. So let’s look at these and let them guide us through this stage. This will help you discover useful project management tools and information to find answers and define your project, step by step.


1.What is a project?

Project Management Theory defines a project as a “temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product or service.”

Breaking this down for us as newcomers, it means that our projects should have a start and an ending point, as well as a clear objective. As a result they should create something new and unique. All projects require resources – like time, money or knowledge. Projects can be very different, ranging from small to big or simple to complex, and can be realised by one person or a thousand

Checklist Project

Phases of a project

A project does not only have a defined time frame with a start and an end, but also different phases that can be identified.

A short outline on the phases of a project:

  1. Initialisation: analysing the problem and defining the overall aim, collecting and choosing ideas
  2. Definition: define objectives, define target group
  3. Planning: decide on activities, estimate resources
  4. Implementation: coordinate and execute activities, monitor effects, communication within the team and to the outside
  5. Evaluation: documentation of the results and actions, feedback from target group and project team

Project Life Cycle

Project Life Cycle

Project management theory has different versions of the project life cycle, but all set out a model that follows consecutive steps. These steps follow each other, but not always the same way. As a clever project manager you don’t follow a strict order but you know that sometimes it is necessary to go back and forth a bit in the cycle. For example, it might happen that you find changes in your cost estimation during the implementation phase and have to go back to calculating your budget, or you might realise that you didn’t include an important target group when you are already at the stage of planning activities.

If you want to find out more about project phases, you can read on here.

For a deeper insight to project management check out : A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge , especially pp. 6-9 (Project Management) and pp. 11-16 (Phases and Project Life Cycle)

2. What do others do?

After this first introduction to project management, the next section serves to give you an idea of what a project could look like. Here you can find a collection of ideas for projects:
clicking on the black words you can find out about examples of projects realised by returned volunteers or other initiatives so far; in the other fields you can see first ideas for your inspiration that still have to be filled with life and maybe could be turned into a real project by you.



Find more ideas in the Book of Inspiration with projects that have been realised by European students and collected by the Social Impact Award.

3. What is the issue I’m interested in?

You can take inspiration from the Wall of Ideas or create something new and unique using the knowledge you gained in the previous stages about global issues to further develop your own idea for a project. It can be a project you want to do on your own, or an undertaking you want to start together with your friends or other returnees. It can also be an idea you want to achieve through joining an organisation, initiative or any other group. (Signposting to interesting groups was covered in stage 3.)

The following questions should help you with your thoughts:

  • What issue or problem motivates me to get active? Perhaps you might want to do something on one of the SDG’s?
  • Why is this issue or problem important?
  • Why does it interest me?
  • How am I personally concerned by or connected to the issue?

Write a small letter to yourself answering these questions in about 500 words. Write it down with pen and paper or into a document and save it on your computer. Set a reminder in your calendar to have a look at it again in 6 weeks. It will be interesting to look back to where you started from and check again on whether your ideas are still the same, or if they changed and why.


4.  What if it doesn’t work out?

Throughout the whole process of planning and executing a project, you will move forwards and backwards, you will have successful and frustrating moments. This 10-minutes video can help you to see the chances of accepting failure and the dangers of being stubborn and blind to mistakes:

Most of us will do anything to avoid being wrong. But what if we’re wrong about that? “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz makes a compelling case for not just admitting, but embracing our fallibility.


5. What do I want to change?

So far, you have been thinking about a global issue you are concerned about or moved by. Now it is time to further develop this as a starting point for your project. Not only should this idea make sense to you and others, but the project should also be designed to tackle the root causes of the problem. We have to understand a problem and dig deep into its causes to be able to identify activities that can contribute to solving it- instead of just scratching the surface level. So the question here is: What can I do to make a real change?

There is a project management tool that can help us with this: the Problem Tree. Like every other tree, it consists of roots, a bark and leaves. The bark symbolises the issue or problem you want to address, the leaves are the symptoms or effects and the roots are the causes of the problem. If we cut the leaves, they will continuously grow back. So to deal with a problem, we need to attack the roots of it – and therefore we have to identify them first. This technique helps us to find solutions by mapping out the anatomy of a problem, its causes and effects. This will then enable clearer prioritisation, help you to focus on objectives, and break them down to actions to be taken.


Problem Tree scheme 2
Problem Tree



Take a piece of paper and paint a tree with roots, a bark and leaves.
You can have a look at the example below if you need some inspiration. It doesn’t matter how the tree looks like or what kind of tree it is – just make sure it has roots, a bark and leaves.
Then you can start to fill this tree with life:
1. What issue are you concerned about and want to work on with your project?
Write it on the bark of the tree.
2. What are the effects of this problem?
Write them on the upper part of the tree, the leaves.
3. What are the reasons for this problem?
Write the causes in the below part of the tree, the roots.
Try to find as many effects and causes you can to have a full picture of your problem.
You can draw arrows to connect causes and effects to the problem.
You might find out several levels of causes and effects which you can link to each other by arrows too.

Problem tree example

6How can I create this change?

You already identified the problem or issue you are interested in and came up with ideas for solutions. Now it’s time to think about the aim of your project and the way to achieve it. As emphasized in the beginning, every project has to have an objective. It is not only a basic characteristic of projects but it also motivates you and creates a focus for what you want to address with your actions. So the next step is to formulate objectives and identify activities you have to do, to achieve your aims.


SMART objectives

The SMART criteria can help you to formulate good objectives that will support your project:

  • Specific: Project objectives need to be clear and precise. Make sure that other people, external to your project, can understand them, too.
  • Measurable: With quantifiable goals you set objectives which enable you to measure your progress.
  • Attainable: Your objects also need to be realistic. They can stretch your abilities but should still remain possible – taking into account financial resources, time, qualifications, etc.
  • Relevant: A relevant aim matters to you and to others. It should relate to your efforts and have a meaning for the target group.
  • Time-bound: Binding objectives need a time frame defining by when you want to implement activities and reach your goals.


Hierarchy of objectives

You should keep these criteria in mind when you come up with objectives and activities for your project. A Hierarchy of Objectives is a perfect tool to develop a detailed plan designing activities that match your objectives. It consists of  4 levels:

  • An overall objective,

The overall objective explains why the project is important. It is not a concrete aim to be reached within the time frame but rather an overarching goal the project contributes too. As a long term goal it does not only depend on the successful implementation of your project but also on other external factors.

Example: Overall objective: Promote the idea of Fair Trade.

  • The objective of your project,

The objective of your project is a specific aim to be achieved by the end of your project. You should define a single project objective that is realistic for you.

Example: Project objective: Organize a one-day seminar for 20 participants on Fair Trade by September 2018.

  • Milestones,

The project objective can be divided into several milestones defining the strategy for your project. These milestones define what has to happen to achieve the objective. They can be processes, products, services etc.

Example: Milestone: Seminar room is organized.

While milestones are results, activities describe what has to be done to reach these milestones. So they describe concrete actions that have to be taken. Try to be as precise as possible in formulating the activities, using verbs to emphasize the active character of this level. As your project will probably include many activities, it makes sense to summarize them in one group for each milestone.

Example: Activities: Search for rooms online, send room requests, visit a possible room, sign contract for room usage, etc.


This is what the Hierarchy of Objectives can look like:

hierarchy of objectives Fair Trade

7What are the experiences of other returnees?

There are many people dedicated to making a change and you are not the first returned volunteer to be starting your own project. This offers the opportunity to benefit from earlier generations of returnees and their personal experiences of coming back home and getting involved.

We collected two short testimonials of volunteers who, after returning from their overseas experience and participating in a course similar to yours, carried out their own projects. Listen to their perspectives on the benefits and limitations of project planning, in the context of a returnee’s world:



8. Further resources

By now, you have created a stable planning base for your project. You learned about project management, got to know concrete planning tools, and heard from other projects and returnees. Furthermore, you’ve taken steps that are crucial for a successful project management: you thought about the issue that motivates you to take action, and identified the problem and solutions to it. And you now know how to formulate SMART objectives and plan activities that fit the aims you set for your project.

To continue your journey to become a perfect project manager, you will have to answer more questions. To prepare you for this journey and the questions that will come up on the way, here are some further insights into project management, concrete tools for planning, and inspiration for action:

What do I have to do when?

Time planning with the GANTT Chart


How much time and money do I need?

Estimating costs and workload


How can I organize tasks – especially when I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done?

Setting priorities with the Matrix of priorities


How to make sure my project makes a real change?

Checklist of impact oriented project objectives


You might also be hungry for further, more general knowledge about project management, or to get inspiration from other projects.


Where can I find further advice and material on project management?


Where can I find examples of online campaigns and advice on communication?


Where can I find further information and inspiration for projects on global issues?

Congratulations on finishing the course

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