Saving the world with project management



Not-for-profit organizations are often created by a group of passionate people devoted to a good cause. And while they may have the ambition to help those in need, they often lack the business knowledge necessary to transform passion into a successful portfolio of projects that make the most of frequently limited funds.

While the not-for-profit sector may seem far removed from the corporate realm, project managers can learn a lot from their for-profit counterparts.

“Running a not-for-profit is not that different than the for-profit world,” says Paul R. Williams, PMP, executive director of the American Institute for Innovation Excellence, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and sharing best practices in innovation management based in De Pere, Wisconsin, USA. “You need short-, medium- and long-term goals,” he says. “You need to manage resources and measure results. Project management is a part of all of that.”


Many smaller organizations see project management as too complex for what they are trying to accomplish—but they're missing the big picture.

“Project management is what you make of it,” Mr. Williams says. “You take the pieces that work for you and scale it up or down to meet your needs.”

Not-for-profit organizations that don't use formal methodologies for planning projects or measuring ROI severely limit their ability to thrive, says Kim Sutton, director of FSI (The Foundation for Social Improvement), a London, England-based not-for-profit group that helps small U.K. charities expand their fundraising skills. “They want to accomplish something, but they often lack the business structure they need to accomplish their goals.”

FSI offers consulting and training courses, including a program on project management. “Project management fits our vision of helping these organizations become more efficient,” she says.

In the course, instructors teach not-for-profit groups how to create a project plan, set goals, and create a budget and schedule.

Even a simple project plan can help smaller teams stay focused on what they are trying to accomplish and enable them to do more in less time, Ms. Sutton says. “And it deters the haphazard approach that some small organizations have of doing a little of this and a little of that.”

Project management techniques also allow organizations to assess the impact of their efforts. When Ms. Sutton begins working with a charity, her first step is to review a recent fundraising project and score it based on its ROI.

“There can be a lot of burst bubbles at the end of that conversation,” she admits, noting that after the cost of the event is subtracted from total gains, many of these projects return far less than the group expected.

“They think that because it gave them exposure it was worth the effort, but that's not the only objective,” she says. “As a not-for-profit, you've got a responsibility to your trustees to deliver the best ROI with the resources you've got.”


A good resource-tracking system gives you a story to tell. That's how you secure continuing support.

—Tue Nguyen, PhD, Institute for OneWorld Health, South San Francisco, California, USA


Project management strategies enable notfor-profit teams to proactively address key issues and plan for long-term sustainable growth.

Planeterra, a not-for-profit sustainable tourism organization, recently completed an in-depth strategic planning session to support a broader goal to move away from individual one-off projects that are not developed with the larger goals and needs of the regions in mind.

“The focus now is helping empower local people to develop their communities, conserve cultures, and create a humane and supportive system for their endeavors based on a steady cycle of giving and investment,” says Megan Epler Wood, the Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based organization's executive director.

Ms. Wood and her team seek out sustainable business opportunities that deliver ongoing economic and social value, such as a project to launch a community center in Siem Reap, Cambodia that provides vocational training in cooking and hospitality to young people in the surrounding area, or an initiative to create a women's weaving co-op in the village of Ccaccaccollo, Peru.

“Our first step was developing the strategic plan,” Ms. Wood says. That included creating a new process for assessing the sustainability potential of initiatives, and determining whether the project leaders have the necessary skills and resources.

Planeterra is planning to hire and train new local project managers in Thailand, Peru and Costa Rica, working with the Gap Adventures global team, a sustainability-minded travel company that established the not-for-profit.

“Many of the people in these communities have never written a grant or managed a business,” Ms. Wood says. “Rather than demand that they meet sophisticated criteria, our project managers will assist them for the first year to be sure they can achieve their goals.”

The transformation is still being rolled out, though the strategic planning process alone has been tremendously valuable to the team, Ms. Wood attests.

“It helped us take a step back and see where we want to go and how to proceed,” she says. “That perspective allowed us to set objective goals based on what we believe is possible.”

For the first time, Ms. Wood says, rather than reacting to events and needs, the foundation can be proactive. Along with targeting long-term sustainable projects, Planeterra plans to build up an ongoing fund for disaster relief.

“Reacting to crises after they occur is debilitating timewise,” she notes. “Having a sustainable fund means the resources will be there as they are needed.”

By building a plan that clearly defines the goals of the project, organizations can measure if they have achieved their objectives. Whether they are attempting to sign up 100 volunteers or donate £1,000 worth of food to the needy, these metrics make it much easier to determine what they've accomplished and to communicate those achievements to their benefactors, Ms. Sutton says. “Quantifiable measures prove project success.”


One of the biggest challenges for notfor-profits is securing funding. Project management processes are especially useful in communicating with donors who want to see where their money is going.

“If you can show that you have a disciplined approach to executing projects in the field, donors will know that their money is not being wasted,” Mr. Williams says. “Show them a road map and a timeline, and it will give them the confidence to invest in you.”

Having a project management process that tracks where fiinds come from and how they are being used to support your goals also ensures the trust of fiinders and their continued support, notes Tue Nguyen, PhD, vice president of research and pre-clinical development and leader of the diarrheal diseases program at the Institute for OneWorld Health. The South San Francisco, California, USA-based notfor-profit pharmaceutical organization develops new medicines for children in developing countries with infectious diseases.



The PMI Educational Foundation helps bring the benefits and the power of project management to local communities and to the farthest reaches of the world for social good. The foundation assists not-for-profit organizations by offering training, tools and methodologies, and project management maturity resources. Find out more at

One of the best ways to secure funding is to show off successes. “A good resource-tracking system gives you a story to tell,” he says. “That's how you secure continuing support.”

Project management methodology helps organizations make better use of limited resources, and it allows them to funnel new funds toward their most successful projects, notes Amy Steets, program manager at Vitamin Angels, a Santa Barbara, California, USA-based not-for-profit that works to reduce child mortality worldwide by providing essential nutrients to the needy.

“Project management is extremely important to us,” she says. “You can't run an effective project without managing it and measuring whether you accomplished what you set out to accomplish.”

One of the most critical tasks in her projects is vetting the local not-forprofit organizations that will distribute the vitamins. The groups submit grant proposals to Vitamin Angels, defining a specific target population, how they will reach it and the number of children they expect to help.

The groups that are selected must report progress annually, including the number of doses given and how those numbers compare to original goals.

If the local groups struggle to meet their targets, Ms. Steets connects them with more successful organizations or shares marketing ideas, such as reaching out to younger sibling populations through schools and partnering with other community services providers.

“We understand that it's hard to manage these projects at the field level, so we try to assist them as much as we can,” she says.

Managing projects from afar, though, poses problems.

“The biggest weakness a lot of notfor-profit organizations face is how to ensure what's supposed to happen in the field is really happening,” Ms. Steets says.

To improve oversight in more remote areas, her organization is in the process of building a more robust monitoring and evaluation component into its program.

Developing this capacity can be expensive, but that added accountability brings value to the project and the organization, Ms. Steets says.

“Part of our project management process is determining whether we are using the resources given to us to their utmost potential,” she explains.

It also enables corporate sponsors to see the value of their donation and broadcast those achievements to their own stakeholders, says Merrin Pearse, PhD, senior environmental officer at Friends of the Earth (HK), a not-forprofit environmental organization in Hong Kong.


That transparency and accountability are vital components of Friends of the Earth's recent project in which team members worked with local businesses to reduce the carbon impact of their vehicle fleets.

At each company, the team benchmarks the fuel use of the existing fleet over one month and then holds a workshop for all drivers and relevant personnel on how to reduce fuel use. Drivers are trained to not accelerate or break heavily, not to idle, to park in the shade and to take more direct routes. All organizational staff are also asked to consider whether they can take public transportation instead of using company vehicles, and after the seminar is complete, team members measure fuel use over the ensuing month.


Project management is extremely important to us. You can't run an effective project without managing it and measuring whether you accomplished what you set out to accomplish.

—Amy Steets, Vitamin Angels, Santa Barbara, California, USA

The group recently finished phase one of the project, working with 18 companies and approximately 1,500 vehicles. Its final benchmark measure showed the companies averaged a 12 percent drop in fuel use and an 8 percent fuel efficiency gain. That's a savings of 65,000 liters (17,171 gallons) of gas, according to Dr. Pearse, who is also the owner of Coordinate4u, a sustainability consultancy in Hong Kong.

“Our ultimate goal is to change the mindset of both individuals and corporate leaders towards a sustainable environment,” he says. By measuring the impact on fuel use and efficiency, Friends of the Earth can directly correlate the benefits of its training to positive environmental and financial results.

Those numbers also create a great selling point that Friends of the Earth and its corporate sponsor for the project, Standard Chartered Bank, can share with constituents.

Metrics help demonstrate that projects correspond to organizational goals. “The bank wants to be aligned with projects that show it is taking environmental initiative and creating financial savings, and Friends of the Earth wants to encourage change,” Dr. Pearse says.

By measuring the impact of their projects, not-for-profit organizations can prove results and show how far even a little project management training can go. PM




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