Project Management Institute

Charitable Risks

How to Overcome Four Common Project Obstacles at Nonprofits

By Trevor Stasik, CAPM

A project is a project no matter where you work. But project management in the nonprofit world can bring unique obstacles. Some of these challenges are common among all nonprofits, while others are mostly an issue for smaller organizations. All of them require creativity and strategic planning to overcome. Here are four of the most common project pitfalls in the nonprofit world and how to handle them.

Limited resources. Projects at nonprofits are frequently limited by the availability of staff, technology, time and funds. Many nonprofits are required to cap the amount of money spent on overhead and reinvestment in the organization; most resources must be spent directly on the mission. This means project teams often have to make do or innovate. At Make-A-Wish®, where I work, we are limited in the staff and time we can devote to process improvement, so we're partnering with a class of business students from a nearby college to execute on a project. Another way to get around limited resources is to trim the scope. Or consider ad hoc tactics for securing needed funds: An organization's fundraising team might be able to launch a campaign for specific projects.

Limited guidance. In my experience, projects at nonprofits can suffer from a lack of leadership, such as disengaged sponsors. To maintain momentum in a project in spite of limited guidance, it can help to give team members more ownership and decision-making ability.

During a website redesign project I recently worked on, the busy sponsor was often unavailable to make key decisions. However, because of the success of past projects, she had enough trust in project leads to empower them to make certain decisions on her behalf. For example, to meet a deadline, a website font decision had to be made immediately. Even though the sponsor was unavailable, the project lead was allowed to take ownership of this decision and choose the font.

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In other words, nonprofit leaders strapped for time need to be comfortable delegating to ensure project progress.

Volunteers. Nonprofit project teams sometimes consist partly or even entirely of volunteers. The incentives needed to keep these team members engaged and productive are different than with paid team members. Project managers can't press volunteers too hard, lest they quit. To maintain engagement, project managers should leverage why people volunteer in the first place: the organization's mission. Remind team members why that mission matters and how necessary their contribution is to success.

Make-A-Wish, which fulfills wishes of children who have been diagnosed with critical illnesses, regularly holds “Mission Moments,” during which staff and volunteers put aside current work to talk about the recipients and the impact the wish has on children, families and communities. All levels of the organization participate in these moments—from senior leadership to project teams to operations. This helps keep the focus on the children benefiting from our mission, rather than the needs of individual volunteers and employees.

Project managers make it possible for those serving their communities to spend more of their time actually doing that.

Lack of track record. The discipline and value of project management isn't well-known at some nonprofits. This can make buy-in and engagement from teams and sponsors difficult. However, it is possible to overcome this through the support of a CEO or other top executive who can champion project management as part of the organization's culture.

My organization reintroduced the role of project manager nearly five years ago after it had been gone for a period. It took time to bring senior management on board, but once that happened, responsibilities grew exponentially. For instance, our CEO became committed to formalizing and embedding project management across the organization and pushed for broader use of project management tools. This kind of highly visible support from senior management can be crucial for getting teams to take new project management processes—and project managers themselves—seriously.

Project managers make it possible for those who are serving their communities to spend more of their time actually doing that. If done right, maturing project management practices at a mission-driven organization can deliver what all stakeholders, from recipients of goods and services to donors to volunteers, want: a more efficient organization that can better focus on its core mission. PM

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img Trevor Stasik, CAPM, is a business analyst at Make-A-Wish, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
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