PLAN:NET (P:N) has always been a collection of diverse yet like-minded people striving to provide practical social and economic development services internationally and locally. We provide professional planning and management advice to organizations working in social and economic development.
P:N is about people…those we are dedicated too, the poor and disenfranchised; those who contract for our services, our clients; and those who make us up, our roster of dedicated professionals. Together, we are a community of shared values.
Although P:N was formally registered as a Canadian company in 1984, our gestation began much earlier…in 1976…and our origins are much more exotic…in Bali. Then, five of the original seven P:N partners were drawn together as a “parachute team” to rescue the faltering World Bank/CIDA funded East Indonesia Regional Development Project…three partners were academics and two were private consultants.
Originally, the firm was formed as an “umbrella” organization designed to provide our participants with increased access to interesting projects they could work on as a team…but more importantly, to increase our control over the quality of our work.
Each of the partners had their own personal services company, so it was agreed that that P:N would only be used to solicit and implement larger projects that could be carried out together by team members. Eventually, in order to augment our sectoral experience in specialized areas…as for example health and environment…numerous other consultants joined us and became a part of our roster. At its largest, the roster included nearly 50 specialist consultants, and covered a wide range of sectors and experiences.
Many of P:N’s guiding principles were drawn out of these origins…
THE CLIENT DILEMMA
A client dilemma has continually vexed our work: are we working for the entity that contracted us…DFATD (formally CIDA), a UN organization, an NGO, foundation or university, or are we working for the people who’s interests these entities seek to support…the poor and disenfranchised?
P:N has always viewed itself as advocating for the poor, working in their best developmental interests. As most clients share this basic tenant, the general trajectory of P:N and our clients are almost always consistent. The dilemma arises in the detail of projects and programs…when P:N determines that the contracting entities have not found the most effective ways of working in the development interests of the poor…and we feel compelled to confront this situation. In effect, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of “biting the hand that feeds us”. This situation may be as a result of the design of projects/programs or in the ways in which they have been implemented. Regardless, it has often presented a classical dilemma for the Firm…finding ways of telling established and often proud organizations things they do not want to hear…and doing this so as not to alienate them…but more importantly…so they will fix them in the best interests of the poor.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
In addition to our origins as an “unberella” organization, several other characteristics have emerged over the years to shape our structure, culture and behaviour.
From the beginning, P:N was not designed to make a profit…we were and remain a private sector, yet non-profit entity. Such money that remains after capital and operational expenses are distributed to our participants is retained as working capital, donated to worthy causes, or used to keep participants current technically.
The company has never valued growth, either in scale or in billings. Small has always been seen as beautiful. However, our size has ebbed and flowed over the years. Like many groups in our field, our structure of few employees coupled with a roster of committed, yet independent participant/consultants has allowed for expansion and contraction in keeping with the characteristics of our market. Nonetheless, mainly for two reasons the Firm has tended to grow: first, because, as the foci of international development have evolved, our roster has expanded to cover new technical areas; and second because of our increasing desire to stay involved with the management of development programs as long as possible. Put differently, the need to increase the scope of our technical capabilities and to increase our capacity to stay with, influence and improve development organizations has resulted in our growth in size and complexity.
Together, the increases in our capability and capacity can be viewed as efforts to maintain and increase our relevance and effectiveness. Thus we have grown with a goal to better serve our constituency…to stay “in the game”. Seeking extended involvement with programs or projects has resulted in favouring longer-term monitoring or management work, as opposed to time-limited planning activities. Thus. P:N has been able to build and maintain multiple year relationships with many of its key clients.
Professional Services Focus
P:N has always sought to limited its service to pure consulting as opposed to field delivery. This is not to denigrate field delivery’s importance…indeed our roster favours individuals who have already had field experience…but rather to concentrate the Firm’s services in the areas of greatest interest and capability of our participants, as well as minimize management complexities. Hence, we have focused on planning and management consulting. P:N participants most often combine planning and management skills with relevant sectoral specializations. Indeed, as a matter of principle, we do not support generic planning and management approaches, but feel relevant sectoral specializations must be imbedded in all our activities. Aspects of engineering, economics, urban planning, health, environment, and community organization are built into our planning and management services. Working abroad, the Firm has always sought the inclusion of relevant national specialists and especially women on its teams.
Participation and Trust Although our participants maintain roles of independent practitioner/advisors, where possible, we have always used, indeed pioneered, participatory approaches. Our belief has always been that our clients…be they organizations or the communities they serve…often know their main problems, have some of the resources and can often contribute practical solutions to these. Our approach to involving our constituents is to build their trust, to listen to their stories, incorporate their cultural values and ideas…and to engage their support in problem solving.
Minimal Management For a number of reasons, P:N has sought to minimize its management overburden. Based on the premise that management needs to understand and be experienced in the field it is working in, we have required that our managers also work as hands-on consultants… that they are, equally, technical participants on projects. A second reason for minimizing management is that traditionally our clients only devote very small amounts to head office overheads. Furthermore, a clear goal of the company is that it passes on to its participants as large a percentage as possible of the fees it is able to charge. Finally, although P:N understands that its participants must earn liveable incomes, it is equally devoted to maximizing the impact of limited resources available for development assistance…to maximizing the amounts of resources available in the field for benefiting the poor.
Ultimately, P:N consists of a small core of leader/managers, an equally small group of administrative and research personnel and a large diverse roster of experienced professionals, all dedicated to social and economic justice. In order to maintain and foster this disparate (often geographically disbursed) assembly, a number of behaviour characteristics have evolved…“solidarity” traditions…some common to small consulting groups, some unique:
Having matured over the years, and in response to emerging new ideas, growing understanding and changes in the environment for pursuing social and economic justice, P:N has evolved over a number of closely related phases…never abandoning the substance of any phase, but rather, adding, refining and building on our experiences and the opportunities presented.
A Planning Beginning
During our initial phase, we primarily provided technical planning services to CIDA and a few other government agencies. These services centred on urban, regional and rural sectors, at the project level. The Indonesian Regional Development Project and the prefeasibility work done on the Far Western Region of Nepal perhaps best illustrate these. Consulting was also provided for the development of postgraduate level programs at a number of universities. During this period, our sectoral interests also expanded to include such areas as community organization, environment and health.
Domestic and NGO Involvement
As the numbers and skills of people involved expanded, two perceptions emerged. The first was that the ethic and values driving those making up the Firm were consistent with many non-government and charitable, as well as civil society institutions delivering development assistance. The second was that much of our experience was applicable to domestic as well as international work. Thus our scope expanded to serve the needs of such local organizations as United Way and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), as well as teachers’ federations (BC Teachers’ Federation), housing cooperatives (CHF) and labour unions (CLC). Similarly, work with such NGOs as the South Asia Partnership, Sri Lanka-Canada Development Fund, Operation Eyesight, and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation increased markedly. Faith-based organizations began to constitute a special category of NGO involvement.
Moving to Management
As P:N participants gathered more experience and as agencies became more focused on accountability, the Firm was increasingly asked to monitor and evaluate projects and programs…and to help improve the organization and management of those programs and projects, as well as the agencies delivering them. The most significant moves in this direction occurred with the winning of a series of evaluation standing offer contracts with CIDA and the internal creation of the performance management tool, aptly called “Splash and Ripple”. Since about 1990, a string of CIDA’s standing offer agreements have directly and indirectly supported an array of nearly 200 large and small monitoring and evaluation projects. These have ranged from a few months to several years in duration. M&E activities on the Regional AIDS Training Network lasted nearly seven years. Large, complex program and sector reviews have been conducted covering Canada’s involvement in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Colombia, Peru and Latin America as a region. Multi-agency assessments have been conducted for such broad international initiatives as the Canadian Landmine Fund which involved three Canadian government ministries, several UN and international agencies and numerous national governments. And we have carried out applied research, beyond evaluation, to help organizations answer strategy questions.
Management foci have lead to more lengthy institutional and organizational change activities. Over periods of many years, P:N collaborated with both the Geneva-based Lutheran World Service and the US-based Presbyterian Foundation in transforming their international and national offices from purely emergency and charity orientations into effective development agencies. In Bhutan, P:N engaged with the Royal Government’s planning commission and most of its Ministries and Agencies, building skills and developing performance measurement routines to support the Country’s Tenth Five Year Plan.
Since 2009, P:N has been responding to changing environments, internally and externally. With my retirement as the last original partner, our corporate structure and ownership has changed. We have now has become increasingly cooperative in our ownership and management. All of our main participants have become equal shareholders. Management is being shared between the executive director, a new internal manager and an active board; all guided by our membership. The annual meeting of the general body plays an active role in discussing and establishing our policy directions.
The changes in ways in which international development is being supported nationally and internationally has also fostered new strategies. Although we remain committed to working internationally, we have had to adjust our priorities, giving increasing prominence to domestic clients and activities. As international development support is changing due to declining budgets, a resulting consolidation of the NGO sector and seemingly ever-changing and more difficult working relationships with government agencies, P:N has refined its approaches. Although, we continue to seek new additions to our roster, equal emphasis is being given expanding our reach through forming strategic partnerships and increasingly close working relationships with similarly scaled and like-minded companies. We are seeking interesting projects beyond our usual clientel - other non-government institutions, international and multi-lateral organizations and with the private sector. But, at our core, we remain very much the same organization that we have always been, very much driven by the desire to make as much difference as we can.