Advancing Nonprofit Capacity

Nonprofit Tech Talk: Project Management

Today’s blog is by Zachary Stombaugh, MS, JWS Consultant.

Previously, we discussed project management as a component of grants activities. In today’s Nonprofit Tech Talk, we’ll dive into some general guidelines for the different ways to manage projects, as well as a few tools you and your organization can use.

So, what is project management (PM)? PM refers to the processes you (or your organization) have in place to ensure you meet the different milestones of any given project. I like to think of PM in four primary stages:

  1. What is the project, what needs to be accomplished, and vague idea of when it needs to be completed.
  2. Who is going to do what, when are they going to do it, and what steps will we take to make sure we are doing what we need to do when we need to do it.
  3. Getting the planned work done and modifying the plan as needed.
  4. Having all work done when it needs to be done.

In a perfect world, each step would occur consecutively without issue. But, the reality is that projects can and will run into problems at some stage. A vital part of PM is including an expectation of issues in the planning stage (sounds easy enough, right?). In doing so, it is important to recognize the different roles your team members will have. The most common roles include:

  • Project Champion. This is the person who may not be directly involved with the project execution, but has a vested interest in making sure the project is completed well, on time, and according to specifications.
  • Project Manager. As the name implies, the Project Manager is most often the person responsible for direct oversight of the project. This individual will coordinate with the various team members (and any other relevant parties) to ensure specific milestones are met. The Project Manager will have a plan in place to accommodate any changes to the project, and will play a key role in ensuring a smooth project time.
  • Project Team Member. These individuals are those responsible for the groundwork in meeting milestones. They are the ones doing the work that needs to be done, and are responsible for communicating with the Project Manager and Champion as to the status of that work.

Now, this outline does not fit all organizations; often, one person may fill several or even all these roles. While an organization grows, it is important to provide these avenues for delegation to not only grow your team but also to keep a structured PM scheme. As the size and scope of your organization’s efforts get larger, having individuals focus on fulfilling any single aspect of a project can lead to efficiency increases and less stress for the team. Further, a well-defined PM schema can help keep expectations clear across projects.

Once you have an idea of how your PM will be setup, you should identify which tools you will use. Today, there are many online and offline tools for project management. To understand which tool is best for you, it may be best to think of your organization’s projects—once again—in terms of size and scope:

  • Basic paper or electronic TO DO lists (like Todoist, a paper notepad, or even a spreadsheet) are simple, straightforward ways to track your project goals. Because of their simplicity, these tools are best on an individual basis, where the roles mentioned above have significant overlap. Even in larger projects, they may prove useful for individual manager or team members. But, for larger projects, they lack the means for continued oversight.
  • Collaborative platforms, such as Basecamp, Freedcamp, Asana, or Trello, are the next step up in terms of managing projects. Platforms like these typically include the basic TO DO list, in addition to much more powerful tracking tools (Gantt charts, project templates, member reporting, etc.). I find these tools most effective in small groups that require regular interaction with one another. Typically, the Manager and Champion will be a single person who may also be involved partially in the team’s work. While these platforms are useful for most teams, even they lack organization-wide PM integrations.
  • Enterprise platforms are at the top of the PM hierarchy, both in terms of capability and complexity (and cost!). This level includes the likes of Microsoft Project and smartsheet. The main draws of an enterprise-level platform include information and portfolio management, scheduling, engagement, and software integration / continuum (connecting to your other software tools). In addition, these tools are often installed and operated on-site, managed by a dedicated IT team.

While we hope this blog is useful for you and your organization, we understand that it is not easy to achieve a working PM plan. Even harder is to develop a PM plan that is sustainable and cost-effective. The most common causes of project failure are poor planning and poor communication. Taking steps to outline your PM strategy will not only reduce the stress your personally endure, but also contribute considerably in your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Does your organization use a project management tool, and if so, what tool(s) do you use?

What steps could you or your organization use to improve its current project management plan?

 

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