Project management in the not-for-profit organizations

identifying issues and practices

Pr Valérie Lehmann
University of Quebec at Montreal Business School, ESG-UQAM, CANADA


The participation of non profit organizations to the growth of the industrial and services sectors in occidental societies has been increased over the last three decades at least. Some of vital socio-economic questions raised by sustainable development are already well answered by this specific type of organizations. Clearly, attention must be given by managers and researchers in management science to these organizations as Drucker (1990) anticipated, years ago and as Powell and Steinberg (1997, 2006), in realizing with co-authors a state of art and in pointing the avenues for research, invited us to investigate this sector.

In the field of Project Management, scientific literature focused on Project management in non profit organizations appears to be poor. Except for some handbooks (e.g. Bean and Hussey, 2006) and other specific articles referring to cultural organizations (See Non Profit Management and Leadership Journal), it is difficult to find data and elements of analysis about project management practices in Non Profit sector.

Meanwhile, for the vast majority of these organizations, projects appear to be the paramount way for them to deploy their activity. But these institutions do not use Project Management (PM) tools and processes as standards proposed by PMI or some others professional associations in project management as AFITEP in France. If some of international institutions such as UNESCO or la Croix Rouge International refer to institutionalized standards in PM, small, national or non-governmental non-profit organizations do not appear to (Howes, 2001; Bellenger, 2005; Bean & Hussey, 2006). Classic normative concepts in project management as project management office, project structure, risk analysis, methodology or reporting and current practices as project reviews, actions registers, milestones, Livelink platforms or integrated organizational project structure are not in use. At Médecins sans Frontières, in Paris, even the definition of the concept of project varies considerably from common references (Midler, 1993; Lewis, 2001; PMI, 2004). There, ‘Home made tips’ replace some of usual standards in Project Management.

While several authors urge to improve professional practices in non profit sector and highlight the need to extend knowledge about project management (Deckerck, Declerck et Debourse, 1997; Hazelbrouq et Badot, 1997; Garel, 2003; Jaafari, 2003), very few North American and European researchers have focused on these issues.

The Research Objectives

This research aims to advance knowledge on project management and, in the same time, to improve knowledge already in use, by identifying and describing project management (PM) practices rarely examined and discussed. By uncovering these, the project management community can develop new concrete applications, specific to non profit organizations (NPOs) and learn new ways of dealing with project management. More specifically, this study will pursue these three main objectives:

  • Investigate PM practices (methods, processes and tools) in use in NPOs
  • Investigate the differences between PM normative practices and PM practices in NPOs
  • Investigate the relationship between PM practices in NPOs and their specific strategy, structure, management and HR.

Empirical Data Field

In this research, large scale international institutions and governmental institutions from public administration sector will be not considered, due to their size, structure and ownership (Youssofzaï, 2000). We deliberately limit the conceptual word ‘non-profit organizations’ to public or private organizations, whose written goals are not to maximize profit, and whose revealed missions are to ensure welfare to people, to develop new forms of knowledge (R&D) or to reinforce artistic creation. Therefore, humanitarian and ‘care’ associations like Centraide in Canada or Médecins sans Frontières in France belong to this sector. Medical research centers, like Breast Cancer Institute in Canada, Institut de Recherche pour les pays en voie de Développement (IRD) or Institut National de Recherche Scientifique in France are also part of this community. Some specific cultural organizations, as Opéra de Paris or Théatre du nouveau Monde from Montréal, are also concerned.

To date, the empirical data field is composed of 12 organizations (6 French and 6 Canadian) from 3 sectors: humanitarian and social organizations, cultural organizations and R&D institutes (see Exhbit 1 below).

Empirical Data Field

Exhibit 1: Empirical Data Field

For each organization, three project-actors are interviewed -a project director, a project and a specialist- in order to allow the triangulation of the data collected.

A preliminary work based on theoretical background and on secondary data concerning the Opera de Paris leads to a classification of the various forms of project knowledge in the organization.

Towards an Extended Representation of Project Knowledge

Organizational knowledge can be analyzed along two dimensions: A first dimension concerning the type of knowledge acquired, a second dimension that would relate to the type of learning which generated the knowledge. The first dimension addresses the distinction proposed by Polanyi (1966) between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. The second dimension contrasts cognitive learning (Duncan & Weiss, 1979; Fiol & Lyles, 1985) and behavioural learning (Cyert & March, 1963; Levitt & March, 1988).

The intersection of these two dimensions leads to a characterization of the various types of knowledge according to their object: “what?”, “why?” and “how?” (represented in Exhibit 2). In this proposal of classification of organizational knowledge, two distinctions are introduced. The first distinction is between procedural knowledge or mainly explicit operational knowledge and essentially tacit knowledge, know-how understood here in the largest sense of know-how adopted by Hatchuel and Weil (1992). The second distinction is between declarative knowledge and more tacit knowledge, conceptual knowledge (or “know-why”) that embodies the links of causality between actions and results.

Kogut and Zander (1992, p.398) made a first distinction between the knowledge acquired by the project employees assigned to the project by different functional divisions in a company, and that knowledge gained by the project team as a whole. The second distinction made by these authors is between declarative knowledge (Information) and procedural knowledge (Know-how).

By superposing this second typology on to the first one, the knowledge acquired by the project team, which will now be called ‘project’ knowledge, may be put into two categories. The first category of knowledge is the information acquired relating to the retaining and sharing of information by the employees or the knowledge of “who knows what?”. The second category regroups the various types of know-how relative to managing the project. Below we describe this classification is greater detail as a refinement of the characterization of the types of project knowledge described previously. The structure is outlined in what we call the Project Knowledge Matrix (cf. Exhibit 2).

The Project Knowledge Matrix © Bourgeon

Exhibit 2: The Project Knowledge Matrix
                                                                                                 © Bourgeon

Within this classification of organizational knowledge, two other distinctions are introduced. The first one concerns the explicit types of organizational knowledge and distinguishes, between, on the one hand, declarative knowledge, and, on the other hand, procedural knowledge. The second distinction differentiates the links of actions-results causality that constitute conceptual knowledge or ‘know-why’ and ‘know-how’ being understood in the larger sense of know “by what means?” (Hatchuel & Weil, 1992). This explicit knowledge is enriched by project experience that generates new knowledge that can be combined to previous one and renew functional base information. So, project knowledge can be dissected following the classification of explicit to tacit and declarative to procedural and of conceptual knowledge types. Firstly, “Who knows what?” information (Table 2, Quadrant #1) is relative to the keeping or sharing of necessary information and know-how in order to complete the tasks required by the project (Kogut & Zander, 1992). Broadly archivable and explicit, this type of knowledge is particularly pertinent when the project team is staffing or when, during a project, problems arise requiring the intervention of experts working outside the project or even outside the company itself.

Project procedures (Exhibit 2, Quadrant #2) are the procedures, methods and techniques particular to project management. These explicit and archivable procedural tools concern the four dimensions of project management: time, risk, budget and created value. These management tools consist in project scheduling and critical project chain management, in risk management (e.g., risk identification, qualitative and quantitative approaches of risk, contingency planning and risk control), project budgeting and earned value control. Some of these tools and methods may be found in the Project Management Nook of Knowledge edited by the Project Management Institute for the first time in 1987 and gathering certified project management methods. These different elements of explicit knowledge can be combined to produce a set of tools for managing specific projects led by the firm.

But project knowledge (cf. Exhibit 2, Quadrant #3) is not limited to, nor does it amount to, these project management tools alone. The representation of the ‘correct’ project shared by the project actors contributes to an understanding of the actual project tasks, directs the action and explains “what should be done?” and “why?”. This ‘project’ culture, diffused in the organization through the rotation of functional personnel in the projects (Midler, 1993), concerns the representation of links of actions-results causality that makes for a good and successful project. Resulting from the company's multi-project experience, these links may constitute general principles of project management and be perceived as critical factors of success of the projects led by the company (Meyers & Wilemon, 1989). These principles may consist in establishing clear project objectives, controlling costs, schedules and resources, implementing effective communication networks between the project team and its environment, coordinating team members within the team, assessing the team's strengths and weaknesses, and ensuring that enough time has been invested in high pay-off activities at the beginning of the project. The staffing approach of project teams and the career development approach of project managers implemented by the company play an important role in the extent to which this tacit knowledge is diffused, shared within the company among the functional departments and articulated to produce improvements in existing project procedures.

Finally, the implementation of cross-functional project teams and the removal of boundaries between functional departments calls for the development of “integration” knowledge, developed to manage the coordination of functional personnel involved in the projects. This knowledge (cf. Exhibit 2, Quadrant #4), or “how to combine” (e.g., resources and competences) (Hatchuel & Weil, 1992), consists of a plethora of tasks: forming and operating the project-critical networks, developing the communication languages used between different functional specialities, ensuring information circulation across the team, developing a culture of co-operation among project actors who may not be experienced in working together and defining methods for managing individual careers by rewarding project experience. These tasks are compatible with a number of broader organization objectives including: the effective integration of functions, identifying coordination needs, implementing synchronization procedures, developing creativity and innovation by cross-fertilization, defining and rearticulating organizational roles, acquiring and diffusing the types of knowledge required in inter-functional activities and investigating and diagnosing multifaceted problems (Lorino, 1995).

Integration knowledge is represented by the various types of know-how connected with project management. This tacit knowledge, mainly embodied by project leaders, can be transferred and diffused within the organization through socialization process (Nonaka, 1994) and so required the rotation of these personnel and the alternation of the duties they hold (project/functional duties).

The rotation of these actors across the various projects appears to be the most effective vector for the transfer of the knowledge developed during the projects and it is also a paramount way to enhance organizational learning during and maximize the inter-project capitalization of new knowledge. If the company wants to ensure that the learning does not remain simply ‘local’ knowledge embodied by some individuals and thereby profit from the project outcome, it must make sure that this transfer is effective through the implementation of specific and adapted HRM practices concerning the project actors (career development, personnel rotation system).

So, the prior discussion has pointed out the necessity to take into account a new dimension of organizational knowledge—the project dimension—and have lead to the constitution of a typology of project knowledge in organizations.

But this classification of organizational knowledge types can also offer a dynamic view of the project competence's development process. The implementation of a project-based organization is accompanied with the development of project competence following the incremental path described in Exhibit 3.

Project Competence Development Path © Bourgeon

Exhibit 3: Project Competence Development Path
                                                                                                     © Bourgeon

The first step of the dynamic of the implementation of a project-based organization (the move to Quadrant #2) leads from functional base knowledge previously involved in a partial, sequential and multi-functional approach of transverse problems encountered by the company as base organizational functioning to “within project-team” and integrated problem solving processes. The functional departments involved in autonomous, learning and cross-functional projects develop ability to deal with multi-dimensional problems questioning the representations of their way of doing things that they have develop over the past. The questioning of these links of actions-results causality contributes to renew functional base knowledge and progressively modifies the answers given by the functional departments to the questions: “What should be done?” and “Why?”.

The second step (the move to Quadrant #3) consists of developing cross-functional knowledge; i.e., an ability to form and to manage ad hoc cross-functional project teams. So the development of a project competence within the organization is implemented through the creation of “Who knows what?” knowledge base and the acquisition of project management procedures and tools concerning the four dimensions of projects: time, cost, risk and value. The last step (the move to Quadrant #4) consists of developing a shared vision of what constitutes a “good” and successful project and integration know-how, often embodied by project leaders but enough explicit to allow to define which qualities make a “good” project leader. It constitutes the condition of effective career development of the project managers insuring also the transfer and the capitalization of this project competence through the rotation of these personnel. Being the undisputed manager of all the resources and competencies involved in the project, the role of project manager changes: from a “networker” and a “facilitator”, he or she becomes an entrepreneur and a knowledge manager (De Meyer, Loch & Pich, 2002).

Opera de Paris: Developing Project competence

The progressive transformation of the Opera de Paris over the last fifteen years offers an interesting example of the organizational path of the development of a project competence. The Opera National de Paris operates in two venues, the Palais Garnier (inaugurated in 1875) and Opera Bastille (inaugurated in 1990). The construction of the second Opera house, the Opera Bastille was completed in 1989 and was concurrent with the slow transformation of the “old house” in which collaboration amongst no less than seventy artistic and technical professions was conducted in an non-rational economic way (the Opera de Paris being largely subsidized by the French Ministry of Culture) to a more, autonomous, “managerial” and efficient model of management and so matching better with the objectives of the administrative supervision of the French Ministry of Culture.

The Opera de Paris has moved from an organization based on:

  • highly skilled artistic and technical personnel having a proud and clear vision and a deep understanding of their own know-how leading in some way to the adoption of corporatist behaviors;
  • a partitioned and sequential approach of the scenographic projects,
  • in which the projects were viewed as a space of the expression of expertise; and,
  • emphases the “functional” dimension of the Organizational Knowledge Cube was emphasized.

Into a project-based functioning operation in which:

  • the whole organization is centred on the scenographic projects that constitute the heart of the activity of the Opera de Paris;
  • through:
    • the implementation of new procedures, tools and new practices of project management;
    • the set up of a clear definition of the roles of each domain of expertise and defining its participation and its contribution on the projects;
    • the integration of activities on the advantages supplied by differentiation;
    • the diffusion of a shared vision of what constitutes a ‘good’ scenographic project;
  • that squares with the development of the project competence in the organization.

The case outlined in the side box shows the evolution of the Opera de Paris through the four quadrants during the last fifteen years. This progression reveals a slow but deep transformation of the organization through a “Project Competence Development Path” (©Bourgeon) as given in Exhibit 4.

Exhibit 4: The project competence development path of the ‘Opera de Paris’ (© Bourgeon)

The project competence development path of the ‘Opera de Paris’ (© Bourgeon)

(Quadrant #1 => Quadrant #3): The implementation of ERM software



The typology of project knowledge developed in this paper and encompassed in the Project Knowledge Matrix (©Bourgeon) takes into account the emergence of the horizontal dimension in the company structure—the strategic project units- and presents a broader operationalization of knowledge—. This typology leads to a better understanding of project knowledge and its multidimensional nature.

Most of the organizations having opted for a project-based structure have already become aware of the difficulty in maintaining excellence of functional departments while integrating functional expertise in cross-functional project-teams to build learning and innovative projects. For this reason, the solutions tested in this domain by the organizations having adopted a project-based structure constitute interesting tracks for what constitutes the most challenging issues for this structure. The dynamics of the development of project competence accompanying the implementation of a project-based organization and following the incremental path as described above constitutes an interesting avenue for future research.


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1 Research project granted by the Project Management Institute (USA)

© 2008, Bourgeon & Lehmann
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australia



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