As of late, I’ve been hearing a lot of requests for training on project management skills. Having been a project manager in fundraising for some years and having taken a lot of project management classes, I know that a variety of tools exist out there to guide people through project management. However, I find that even the “official” project management tools offered by the Project Management Institute, the association of professional project managers, can be overkill for everyday nonprofit projects.
So how do you sort through it all if you want to get organized? To help, I’ve pared down the list to focus on some tools that would be useful for common projects at nonprofits.
First, what is a project? By definition, a project is a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service, or result. Projects have a start and an end. This is different from a process, which is repeated regularly–for example, an annual event. However, you can apply many of these tools to managing processes as well as projects. Since we tend to improve upon things we do repeatedly, such as a Give to the Max Day campaign, even repeat projects can seem like they are new projects.
The first stage of project management is deciding what you will accomplish. It’s critical to define the scope of a project–what’s in? What’s out? That way, everyone agrees on the expected outcomes in advance, and misunderstandings are prevented. This stage is often skipped in nonprofits because things are moving so fast that you may not realize you have a new assignment that needs defining or a project seems too small to require much planning.
If you are managing something new that involves multiple people, it can be very helpful to write out a simple charter that describes the project, sets a basic timeline and budget, and is approved by the project sponsor–the leader who is accountable for the project’s success. That person is responsible for removing barriers and getting you the resources you need for the project to succeed, so setting expectations up front with them can be helpful.
A huge amount of project management is stakeholder management. Stakeholders are people or organizations with an interest in your project. They may include the staff on your project team, your organization’s leaders, the board of directors, certain funders, the people you serve, and more. A stakeholder list is helpful so you can provide updates to everyone who needs them. As for your project team: identify who will be helping you accomplish the project and set up a schedule of meetings. You can use part of an existing meeting if appropriate–for example, use 15 minutes of your weekly team meeting to discuss the project. Regular check-ins are critical.
Planning and Execution
There are lots of ways to do this, but the best advice I can give is to plan with your project team to build ownership. Ideally, brainstorm with your team to identify the major areas of work and what tasks need to happen in each. For example, organizing a volunteer project may involve project development, volunteer recruitment, volunteer training, prep for the day, day-of volunteer management, a clean-up plan, and volunteer recognition. Assign roles to each task and agree on timelines.
Writing stuff down is important! Even a simple one-page document with a chart of what's happening is helpful. You can also include a more detailed budget, as well as a communication plan to ensure stakeholders know your project is happening and where to go for questions.
Monitoring and Control
These are the systems to monitor whether your project is on track. Set up a schedule and template for status reports, send it in advance of team meetings, and review in the meetings. As project manager, review the list of tasks frequently on your own so you can head off small problems before they become big ones. Think about all the steps involved before and after each task–how are things interrelated? For example, maybe marketing materials need to be complete before your new initiative can be announced, and for that, you have to check on when your new logo will be ready. Frequently reviewing the project plan will help you think of these things.
Projects have an end date, and once they’re done, take time to evaluate and celebrate! Do something nice to recognize everyone who helped (food is recommended) and take time to debrief and document lessons learned for next time.
With just a few simple tools and systems, you can take your organizational and team management skills to the next level–positioning you for more opportunities.