Project Start-Up

I recently had a conversation with Jeff Hill, Director of the Wilson County Substance Prevention Coalition in Wilson, North Carolina. The Coalition has implemented community, state-based, and federal initiatives; I wanted to learn more about how he has been able to successfully launch numerous grants with multiple demands.  

Describe your overall philosophy when it comes to starting a new project.

Over the years I have had to learn a lot of project management on the fly. One thing I’ve learned is the importance of crystal-clear clarity on what the project is asking for and what is the community’s need.  It sounds obvious but it’s not always clear. Starting projects right out of the gate but in the wrong direction will waste a lot of resources and the goodwill of grant funders, partners, and staff. If my team and I don’t understand what the community really needs and what’s available, we could end up duplicating efforts. I recognize that every community is different.

In Wilson County, I am proud of the strong collaboration we have built with community stakeholders. It has fostered strong relationships, trust in our ability to serve as the lead on funding initiatives and it provided opportunities to launch new substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery services. For example, our strong collaborative and understanding of the community’s need garnered support for the Coalition’s launch of a recovery center and our partnership with the local police department to increase access to treatment services and supports.

How do you communicate new initiatives to your Board, Coalition members, staff, and the community at large?

My Board of Directors is made of leaders from a wide range of community partner organizations. When I bring them a newly funded initiative, I approach them with two goals in mind. My first goal is to ensure that they have all the information needed as fiduciaries of the organization. My second goal is to ask for their help in getting the word out through their networks; helping me and my team make connections that will help us be successful with any new initiative.

I also believe that giving credit to community partners that played a role in securing funding is extremely important. The Coalition’s reputation as a trusted community partner is what drives us and it is the reason many people want to work with us on these important initiatives. We always identify the key stakeholders that got us to this point and recognize them in our communications, including our growing social media presence. To that end, when it comes to the broader community, we are having some great success in transitioning our communications from traditional print medial to social media using geotargeting advertising. It is helping us reach our younger residents as well as others that are less engaged in the community.

How have you been able to connect the different projects both to one another and to the Coalition’s overall mission?

It’s like at Thanksgiving, I don’t mind my food getting all mixed together on the plate, while my sister can’t have a single thing touching. I tend to look at how projects overlap and connect to one another. We are a small organization and there are only so many hours in the day. For example, we have two grant funded prevention initiatives. While they each have dedicated tasks, outcomes, and reporting metrics, I make sure that there is communication taking place across the two projects so that we can learn valuable lessons, reduce duplication of effort, and be good stewards of grant funds. We use data from both programs to inform state and local leaders, leading to new innovations and new opportunities. It is critical for us to keep an eye on the broader horizon, connect the dots, and to not allow our organization to get trapped by program silos.

What were some of the mistakes you made in starting up a new project?

I’ve learned that it’s so important to take the time to really understand the grant funder and program; are you able to accurately describe the reason they are funding the program, have you spoken to former or current grantees to learn from their experience?

In addition to understand the program better, I would have taken time to ask more questions about our organization; making sure I have identified potential challenges like gaps in staffing capacity and needed skills, and what additional demands will the new initiative put on our infrastructure like accounting and office space.

Lastly, I would have used the information above to communicate what we needed to the Board. I am used to carrying the entire load on my shoulders. I am continuing to learn how to relinquish control. Whether it’s staff or bringing in outside consultants like the INCITE team to help us ensure we meet all of our project deliverables, being honest and clear about where we need help has been an invaluable lesson learned.

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