Choosing an alternative: making the choice


Evaluating an alternative


When choosing to take part in an alternative project, for many people what counts is "feeling part" of the project. Is the group one which you identify with and would like to be part of? That, for many people, is the crucial question. Choosing an alternative in this case involves a subjective approach, in which mutual feelings of empathy play a strong role.


However, this approach does have its pitfalls. Firstly, there is the danger that romantic first impressions gained at an open day may fade away when confronted with the reality of daily work in the project. The extreme version of this is found in the stories of people being taken in by religious sects and finding it very difficult to escape. These stories in turn give a bad name to alternative projects of all descriptions, even those that are not religious or sect-like.


Secondly, there is the question of how the project fits with your own plans in life. Those who think in terms of a career might consider how it will affect their career. Some alternatives such as VSO attract people partly out of a belief that a period spent with them will benefit your career in the long run. Those who don't think in terms of careers (since it sounds too much like the rat-race) might still consider how joining the project fits with their long-term goals.


A systematic approach


The question then arises of whether it is possible to assess alternatives objectively. At first this might seem almost impossible given the diversity of alternative projects. However, a possible method is as follows.


This method takes the "stakeholder" analysis made famous by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but adds a more radical element in the form of the "ladder of participation".


Stakeholders are those individuals or groups of individuals who either have some input into the project or are affected by it. These include groups with a clear participation (funders, project workers, clients, etc.) and those who are less involved but nevertheless affected (such as local government or the owner of the building in which the project is based).


The set of stakeholder groups can be seen as a train of gearwheels, with one gearwheel typically "driving" the project (click here for a diagram courtesy of The Animated Software Company).


The "ladder of participation" comes in various versions. Some versions have as many as 7 or 8 rungs, while others have just 4 or 5. Here we present an 8-rung version, adapted for the stakeholder model.


Manipulation - the lowest level. In this stage, stakeholders are deceived as to the nature of the project.


Decoration - a stakeholder group is regarded as “just there for show” and not really part of the project, and are only given superficial information about it.


Information given - stakeholders are told what is happening but are not consulted in any way.


Comments requested - stakeholders are asked for comments on the project, but the comments are not taken into account during decision-making.


Consultation - a stakeholder group is actively consulted and their comments are taken into account during decision-making, but the stakeholder group does not participate in actual decision-making.


Token representation - a group of stakeholders is formally represented on the decision-making body but is in a minority and has limited influence in decisions. For example, an informal "pre-meeting" of the key decision-makers may make the real decision and then present it as a fait accompli to the full committee.


Genuine representation - a representative of a group of stakeholders plays a full part in the decision-making process. The individual stakeholders in the group take part indirectly via their representative, who they themselves can choose.


Collective decision-making - individual members of the stakeholder group are able to take part directly in the decision-making process.


If every group of stakeholders stands high up on this ladder of participation, this suggests that the project is both responsive and responsible, respecting democracy in its work. On the other hand, if the project uses "manipulation" to deal with any group of stakeholders, this should be seen as a warning sign. Most projects, however, will be between these two extremes, with varying levels of participation among different stakeholder groups.


Of course, this model is a very general model, and does not take into account project-specific issues. For example, laws vary from country to country (and in some countries as the U.S. even from state to state) and these might affect the model. For example, in England and Wales, the decision-making role of beneficiaries of a charity is limited by law, so that projects might lose charitable status if they “climb right up the ladder”.


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