Networking with a Purpose

Project Management in Non-profits

Project Management in Non-profits

By Thomas Goebel, Volunteer Content Writer

Managing a project is always a challenge, but managing a project for a non-profit can be especially difficult.  Boards and directors are seeking ways to operate more efficiently, reduce costs, increase deliverables – in short, to act more like for-profit corporations – while staying true to their mission.  While project management as a concept and goal is alive and well in non-profits, the project manager role in the non-profit organization is still being defined.

There are several types of non-profits.  The best-known are charities, but other popular types include professional organizations, civic leagues, social or recreational clubs, veterans’ groups, and fraternal societies.  Our own Project Management Institute, for instance, is a non-profit.

One of the biggest challenges faced by those managing projects in non-profits is exemplified by what CEO Brian Greene of the Houston Food Bank calls the “Dual Bottom Line” for charities.  These bottom lines are financial sustainability and mission impact, and are often in direct competition.  Charities wrestle with balancing these daily; indeed, many participants see the mission as the primary objective of the non-profit.  This is where sound project management practices come in.  In addition to managing cost, it’s important to keep a project from developing mission creep.  This Scope Management is intricately tied to cost and schedule controls.

The metrics that are used to measure output and outcome only tell part of the story.  For a charity, this might mean how many people are fed, or the number of families served.  But a larger financial bottom line might be an indicator of diminished results.  The onus is on the project manager to not only ensure project success but to present results in a manner that satisfy donors and attract more participation with data-driven reporting that illustrates effectiveness.  Since there is currently no perfect way to measure outcome and output, it is left to the project manager to create ways to convey the success of the non-profit.

Non-profits present other opportunities for project managers.  For instance, as charity watchdog organizations become more popular, the tendency to underinvest becomes more pronounced.  This is because these charity-rating services give a charity high marks for the amount of expenses or funds that actually go to support the programs.  In order to maximize their scores, some charities skimp on allocations for administration and fundraising.  By doing so, they can end up weakening management and administration infrastructure.  Ironically, the effort to woo donors winds up endangering the life of the charity.  Good project managers can circumvent this problem by setting realistic goals at the start of each new project that make the case for adequate funding for supporting roles and activities.

Greene and other non-profit executives recognize a need for good management of their organizations’ projects.  As the ability to consistently and successfully measure outcomes that reflect both financial and mission success continues to improve, more opportunities for project management roles should appear.

That’s something we can all profit from.