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#107 Case Studies

November 9, 2011

"Writing a case study is not about touting your product features, but about the customer problem, the solution, and finally the results. It can be nice to include some lessons learned also, so long as they don’t reflect poorly on your company or your product." (

The “case study” is a staple of every overseas aid or development organization, large or small. Nothing explains your agency’s grand contributions better than a nicely designed, simple, donor-focused write-up of the [always impactful and innovative] project or “solution” that your agency is implementing, capped off with a few “lessons learned” (so long as these “lessons learned” don’t reflect poorly on your organization or your “development solution”).

Case studies are important tools in the donor engagement or “pre-sales” phase. They help focus the discussion around 1) a simple problem that poor people and/or institutions in “the South” are incapable of resolving properly, 2) your “solution” and 3) publicly appropriate “failures” and “lessons learned”. Not only do case studies help “drive conversation,” they also establish your agency’s credibility and steer donors towards your development “solution.” Case studies help prove that your “solution” works in just about any context, therefore you should be the recipient of billions of dollars in funding to “scale it up” all over the world.

If your project or “solution” is highlighted in a nicely designed report that is launched at a big event with a lot of press, your “solution” can be established as a “best practice” that donors will insist is used as the basis for other agencies’ program designs, thus reducing “duplication” and ensuring “learning” and “coordination.’

Case studies are useful to inform research by independent consultants and for evaluation reports done by [objective] third-party evaluators. Rather than wasting precious time interviewing program implementors on the ground or spending the research budget talking with actual “beneficiaries” or local partners, reasonably paid consultants can base their research on your agency’s own version of things as established in a case study written by your agency itself. This helps ensure that the challenges documented (note: forward-looking agencies now refer to challenges as “failures“) are those that your agency wants to share, rather than those embarrassing ones that show agency ineptitude and would require actual changes or stir up real questions around the program approach or “solution” being offered. (Case studies should always include a side box with a personal story from a staff member in “the field” titled something like “Learning from our failures” to add authenticity.)

If your agency’s case study catches the eye and ear of the higher ups who make funding decisions, it’s your ticket to individual fame (eg. job security) and agency fortune (cha-chingggg). You will be invited to a lot of meetings (hello per diem!) to talk about your “solution,” contributing to successful “seeding” of your “solution” throughout Aidland. Your solution will also spread in DonorLand, because those with limited understanding of development work can use your case study as the basis for their elevator speech to board members, celebrities, corporate CEOs looking for public-private partnership opportunities or government officials who make decisions on foreign aid budgets.

The crustier EAWs may believe that case studies should include details and complexity. They may write up a case study that is over 2 pages and attempt to provide an honest rendition of the program or project’s difficult implementation and mediocre results and impact. This is completely wrong. The case study must be understood primarily as a marketing document. People don’t want to know about complex challenges that detract from a cool and simple “solution.” No donor or CEO or NGO-friendly journalist wants to know about what went wrong, or read 5 pages of jargon that detail your actual complex approach. They certainly don’t want to know that your cool “solution” doesn’t really work as they originally believed or that it is only feasible in a particular context. No. They want sound bites and nice graphics that they can feed up to their bosses or the public who can then repeat the success story in 1 sentence or less and feel good about it.

Case studies are an important tool for any agency that wants to get ahead. For this reason, it is a good idea to delegate case study writing to interns who have a limited understanding of how the actual programs work, or to a marketing team or PR consultant who understands the real needs of the audience.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    November 9, 2011 10:07 am

    LOVE this… especially as I have worked fulltime on a failing project that was noted as a success in the field if only for marketing purposes….

  2. November 11, 2011 7:07 am

    proven case-study & success story consultant for hire!

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