Without a Champion, Your Initiative Won’t Survive

In 1994 or so, while working with various community initiatives in San José, California, I was introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard before: that any project, initiative or program must have a champion in order to be sustainable and have real impact: a person who will advocate for that project or program with colleagues and potential supporters, that will fight for that project or program, that will argue for it, and that will be seen, through their actions, not just words, as a person absolutely committed to such. Without a champion, a project, initiative or program fails.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen this concept proven true again and again.

I’m not talking about causes – it goes without saying that a cause needs a champion. I’m talking about a project or program – it could be the introduction of a new database system, a reform of your human resources department, a program to bring theatre activities to classrooms, an HIV education program, an online discussion forum, an anti-bullying initiative, etc.

I have watched well-funded initiatives with a full team of staff fail because there was no champion. There might have been someone designated to be in charge of the initiative, or funded to work on such, but he or she wasn’t a champion, as I have defined it; rather, the person did basic things regarding the job – answering emails, generating reports, building a web site, supervising staff working on such, etc. – but nothing beyond that. The person might say he or she is committed to the project’s success, but the actions that demonstrate that kind of commitment aren’t there – the person rarely attends meetings or events regarding the project, he or she doesn’t participate in the project in some obvious, very visible way, the person doesn’t bring up the project frequently in meetings or presentations, he or she doesn’t push for an online or traditional marketing strategy to promote such, the person doesn’t link the project to other initiatives at the organization, etc. After a few months or a year or even a few years, when the money runs out, the person or team that worked on the project shrugs and says, oh well, sorry that didn’t work out. And the project ends and is forgotten.

I have seen fledgling, under-funded initiatives thrive because there was a champion – an employee, a volunteer, or a funder. I heard that person, that champion, talking about the initiative to others, frequently, I saw that person seeking out participation from others – other employees or volunteers, senior staff, clients, members, donors, the press, other organizations. I saw the importance of the program through that person’s actions. There was an obvious commitment to success for that program that could be seen just by watching that champion. The champion may not be the person working full-time on the project – it could be a senior staff person or other leader/decision-maker at the organization who ensures, through staffing and budget allocations and organizational strategies, that the project is going to happen, is going to be successful, and is seen as essential by the entire organization.

Consultants can’t be champions. They can be be essential contributors, they can undertake activities that are fundamental to a program’s success, and they can feel passion for a program or project. But, ultimately, they cannot be the project’s champion – they are short-term, part-time workers. They will be gone when the money runs out – and they may be heart-broken at not being able to participate in the project anymore, even weep for it (I have!). This isn’t a question of the value of consultants – there is NO question that consultants often play an essential role to a project or program’s success. But if there is no champion at the organization among staff – particularly staff that are in decision-making/leadership roles – it doesn’t matter how much a consultant cares or how hard he or she works: that project will fail.

There can be more than one champion for a project; the most sustainable projects and programs have more than one. Think of a nonprofit theatre; when you talk about the performances such an organization undertakes with any staff member, you will find champions throughout the organization. You will find people in almost every department that, if the entire executive staff left and the budget were cut in half, would step up to ensure that organization continues to produce performances. But that in-school outreach program the theatre undertakes might have just one or two true champions, and after 20 years of success, if those people leave and are not replaced with champions, the marketing and fundraising departments may suddenly start questioning whether or not that program should continue.

Not everyone working on the project has to be a champion. The web master doesn’t have to be a champion for the project. The administrative assistant doesn’t have to be. The database designer does’t have to be. Most of the staff on the project doesn’t have to be. But there MUST be a champion, someone internal, that is pushing the organization regarding the project, or it WILL fail.

When you want to start a project, program or initiative, or you start working on such, you can predict the success of such based on identifying the champion. If you can’t identify such – and if you cannot be such – then that project will be short-lived. I guarantee it. And when you are a consultant working on such, it’s particularly frustrating. And if you’re like me, you weep a lot.

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