You’d call anything a project just so you can manage it



Many of us spend countless hours as volunteers in community organizations, school councils, and other types of “non-business” roles. Have you ever wondered how you could “impose” project management into your “volunteer” roles so that you would have properly planned events, on schedule, well communicated and with all the risks identified (including contingency plans!)?

This paper will show you how two project managers have succeeded in using project management in “volunteer” roles. We are going to describe how to successfully monitor your event (project) with your volunteers (project team) and ensure you are on schedule (time), everyone is well informed (communication), and all potential problems (risk) are identified, with an action plan prepared. Real-life examples will be used to humorously identify the success we achieved and we will show you how using project management in the delivery of the Box Office and Environmental Services Plans for the 2001 Canada Summer Games guaranteed our success.

Preliminary Considerations

Project Management Methodology

Now remembering that you are working with volunteers and many of whom may not be familiar with a project management methodology, you will need to determine how much formal planning is really required. Volunteers will certainly think that planning is “painful” and that they are not really accomplishing anything. Many volunteers feel they do not have time to “waste” planning. It is our job as project managers to impress upon volunteers that planning reduces risk and increases productivity, thus eliminating the need for rework.

Larger projects can be complex and generally require considerably more coordination between various groups involved. They also require more extensive project plans regardless of their nature—whether “business” or “community” driven. Smaller, more focused projects require little formal planning activity.

Our success in using project management for the Canada Summer Games was in ensuring that regardless of the level of understanding of project management, our volunteers knew what we were trying to accomplish and that we had one common goal—a successful event (on time, on budget, and with minimal risk). In our experience, after nearly three years of planning the Canada Summer Games, the volunteers felt that the planning process was extremely rewarding and its value was evident when the event was successful and any risk events were seamless to our “customers” or event attendees.

Project Management Concepts

One of the greatest tasks in introducing project management into volunteer organizations is to educate the volunteer team members (project team) on project management concepts. Keep in mind that volunteer organizations are often more informal in their approach to project management. Often, using familiar terms such as “schedule” vs. “work breakdown structure” or “business plan” vs. “project charter” will give them an idea of what you are trying to accomplish. Throughout our Canada Games project, we referred to the specific items in layman's terms and have used those terms throughout this paper. Project management lingo can be confusing and intimidating to volunteers. We could not afford to have the introduction of project management in the 2001 Canada Summer Games discourage our volunteers. They were the foundation of our success. By modifying our usual project management terminology, we were successful in ensuring our volunteers embraced our approach and supported our goals.

Recruiting Your Team

Can projects be successful regardless of who is on the project team? Definitely! However having the right team makes it easier for the project team to meet the objectives. In volunteer organizations you can apply the same type of recruitment skills in garnering your project team. You will require volunteers who are leaders, facilitators, “multitaskers” and great communicators.

Volunteers have various backgrounds, from the high school student to the university graduate, from the new professional to the retiree. With this mix, come diverse skill sets and a range of ages. Unlike creating a project team, volunteers' request specific areas to volunteer in so you may be faced with an individual that does not have the skill set you need. The following cartoon is likely how most project managers would like to create their teams—what a concept!!!

Our Canada Games Box Office program is a good illustration of matching a volunteer to their skill set. Tickets were sold via an e-commerce solution. The application was developed to manage inventory and track sales. In addition, we had a physical presence at a local mall. Securing volunteers to staff this booth during the day was difficult as most were either in school or working. Our only solution was a retiree base of volunteers—a seniors group who were available and eager to volunteer. The problem was, most had not used a computer! They had the enthusiasm and desire, but we knew we were in trouble when one of them picked up the computer mouse, pointed and clicked at the screen, as if using a television remote!

There clearly was not a skill set match, however, we really had no choice but to work with the volunteers and get them up to speed with the application. We needed to ensure our schedule included one volunteer who knew how to work a computer and one who could discuss the ticket program with the public. In the end, we modified our plan to accommodate the skill sets of our volunteers and it was rare that a volunteer was turned away—there was a position for everyone.

Once you have your team in place you are ready to start planning. The key to a successful project, whether in business or volunteer organizations is, “plan, plan, and plan” using your project management concepts and methodology.

Getting Started

To begin, create a business plan or as project managers know it, a project charter that identifies the “big picture” and the complete scope of the initiative. Ensure that the Chair of the Event or Board Members, your sponsors, buy into the charter. They will be your first test to the receptiveness of project management in their event. Once you have their support, begin recruiting your volunteers, who in essence are your project team and develop a plan for project team meetings. At this point, it is a good idea to review your project charter with the team so that they understand the goals and objectives of the project.

Discussed in these terms will allow your volunteers to grasp the concept of a charter and you will be on your way to introducing volunteers to the world of project management! Start to develop the guidelines for your event (project plan), detailing the responsibilities (project scope), and documenting any boundaries—what is in scope and out of scope. Create your schedule; identify any issues or road blocks (risk identification) and how to prepare for them (risk quantification, mitigation, and contingency plans).

Although to the trained project manager, this is clearly how we would start any project, to a volunteer in the community, it seems that you are implementing a lot of work. The Canada Games volunteers looked at us as if to say, “is this what I volunteered for? I thought this was going to be fun!”

To have the Canada Summer Games in London, Ontario was an opportunity of a lifetime and most volunteers recognized this. The Canada Games are not likely to be back in our community for 30 years. For that reason, it was the perfect event to introduce project management methodology, as most volunteers were tolerant of how we wanted to work and in the end, saw value in implementing many of the tools and techniques introduced to them.


Time, one of the triple constraints (time, cost, quality) is likely one of the most important and well-understood resources that everyone acknowledges. Everyone, regardless of whether they are educated in project management or not, understands that regardless of whether time is used it is consumed and therefore priceless.

You will need to identify early the impact that time will have on cost—for example, if you have an opportunity to complete some tasks early with additional staff working on the event you will increase your costs.

In the Games, we identified all the major tasks as: enriched, enhanced, and essential. Working within our allotted budget, enriched tasks were those that would likely be stricken first if there was not enough money or value. Enhanced, in some cases, stayed and essential had to be completed as a step to success. In our example of the Canada Summer Games Environmental Portfolio:

1. Enriched service meant recycling and waste containers were large gallon bins rented locally, spaced just feet apart for ease of use by patrons at multiple locations within each venue.

2. Enhanced service meant the same containers would be spaced several feet apart for ease of use by patrons at key locations.

3. Essential service meant the containers were borrowed, donated, or rented and placed near high-risk areas.

You can see how the different levels of services would affect your costs by increasing time.

For a chair (project manager) of any event, the objective is to use the time assigned to any tasks the most effective and productive way possible. Time is the prime resource available to keep the event on schedule or to get it back on schedule and must be guarded. Volunteer time can often be hard to manage because the resource is not dedicated (or paid) and therefore can change their commitment to complete a task at any time. One of our key lessons learned was to make progress and status reporting a requirement. Each Friday morning, the divisions in the organization reported in a standard template their tasks completed and any that may be in jeopardy thus ensuring we stayed on track (on time).

Once the business case (project plan) for the event is developed to guide the project execution and control, a schedule (WBS—a key component of the project plan) can be used to manage the tasks to completion.

To build the schedule, you will need to define the things that need to be accomplished (activities), prioritize them in order of importance (arrange them in the appropriate sequence), and estimate the time it will take to complete the tasks (determine the duration).

The volunteers will assist you in developing a schedule and a plan for controlling changes (schedule control). In developing the schedule for community events, you need to establish a timeline and milestone schedule. For the Canada Games, we placed banner paper on a wall and identified the start and finish date of the project. Then, we identified those major accomplishments or milestones and their date on the paper. To ensure that we captured all tasks, we used the paper bag method whereby the volunteers (project team) would identify all the tasks they could think of on post it notes. Then each volunteer would place his or her task on the wall on the appropriate timeline. Duplicates are placed one on top of the other. Agreement was reached on those tasks that were milestones and their acceptable dates. Voila, we completed all the core processes for TIME and they did not even know they were using the methodology of “project management.”

In addition, for large projects or events, like the Canada Summer Games, detail tasks that are dependent on multiple portfolios as crossover tasks. In the WBS, we identified these as DINs and DOUTs or dependencies coming into a portfolio or dependencies going out to another portfolio. This level of detail was easily captured using Microsoft Project and inserting a new column with “DINS and DOUTS” as a drop down choice on the WBS for each task.


Not unlike any project, in a volunteer organization, the project manager will spend nearly 90% of his or her time acquiring and communicating information. The project manager is responsible for ensuring effective communication amongst the team and ensuring real, two-way communication between the project team and the customer.

Meetings are an essential way to facilitate communication, for building teams, making group decision, solving issues, and achieving group consensus. Meetings can be face to face or by conference call. In the Canada Games, we were successful in holding 25% of our meetings as conference calls. Strict rules must apply to ensure everyone has an opportunity to communicate.

Project managers should adhere to the following guidelines of running effective meetings so that all volunteers are kept interested and their focus on the meeting.

  • Establish a meeting policy
  • Only call a meeting when there is a real need
  • Communicate the purpose of the meeting
  • Prepare an agenda
  • Follow the agenda
  • Encourage participation
  • Always include a team building element
  • Issue minutes
  • Follow up on all task assignments and action items.

Just as previously stated, the key to project success is “plan, plan, plan”—another key element to success is to communicate—again, again, and again.

As with business projects, volunteer organizations will require you to tailor your language to the level of the audience and ensure common understanding and agreement on the project scope and objectives, plus future changes.

Determining who needs particular communication documents such as the charter, the project plan, the progress and status reports and daily, weekly, monthly communications is important. Volunteers do not want to be flooded with unnecessary information as “information overload” may confuse the team. Be specific from the initial planning on “who” needs “what” and chart the requirements in a communication plan. The plan must detail how often you would communicate and the medium you would use, for example, email, fax, and voicemail.

In the Games, we went as far as to determine how quickly we could expect a response. Our main method of communication was daily emails and using that medium allowed us to set up standards for that type of communication—such as setting a process for detailing the required action if any, in the subject line. For example, we used ACTION: if the recipients were required to “do something”; INFORM: if the intended message was for informational purposes only; URGENT: if the message was important and if a deadline for response was required we detailed the RESPONSE REQUIRED BY in the subject line. Using email as a medium allowed us to lessen the impact of paper on the environment and communicate efficiently using a fast, effective means. Detailing the required action allowed the recipient to determine if action was required immediately or if they could read the communication at their earliest convenience. The volunteers really appreciated the extra effort we put into our communications plan.

Communication went beyond our immediate team during the planning process and we filtered communication such as division meeting minutes, charters, and plans through a central point in the Canada Games Office. For smaller projects you won't have to worry about using a central point, however for larger projects or events, using a central point similar to a “project office” you will be able to filter who receives what and also that individuals receive what is required. Not using a central point may result in duplicate communication or the risk of missed communication.

One of the simplest and most effective ways of communicating is to develop and use standard templates. Templates can be pulled from previous projects, colleagues who have managed similar projects or simply developing a project template to suit your immediate needs. Templates for the Project Progress, Project Status, WBS, Project Plan, and others will ensure that you receive the required information in each communication to and from your project team members or volunteers. We developed a library of standard templates and modified them as required and made them as simple as possible so that everyone understood their intended use and requirements to deliver the information in the format agreed upon.

During the actual event, you can determine the level of communication needs to ensure success. For instance, in smaller events, perhaps it is as simple as holding small meetings throughout the event at predetermined times to capture a status report. For larger events, such as the Canada Games, we developed a communications plan for the day-to-day operation. It included, again, a central point known as the Games Operating Centre where all communications filtered through the Centre first before being disseminated. Can you imagine trying to communicate several times daily, to 7,000 volunteers, 5,000 athletes, and over 150,000 visitors at over 30 venues each day for 16 days?

A good communication plan is essential in the success of any project and training your team of volunteers in what is expected communication is equally as important.


With an initiative such as the Canada Games and/or any non-profit organization, it is vitally important to be aware of the risks of your event or organizational goals. It is imperative to start planning for risks early. By not planning for risks, is a risk unto itself! Planning is your best defense against the effects of any risk event. It is equally important to be proactive and define contingencies for those risks to ensure success. A high-quality risk management plan helps to avoid those surprises that tend to impact the ability to deliver on time, on budget and within a defined level of quality.

The Box Office and Environmental Services portfolios both carried significant risks, as both were very much in the public eye. The slightest hint of any problems were captured by the media and broadcast to the public through radio and television. The Box Office program had to be prepared for managing sold out events and potential weather delays or cancellation of a particular event due to inclement weather. Some things cannot be controlled—acts of God is one of those things, even though we go to church most Sunday's! Delays associated with weather were a test of the Box Office policies, which came through with flying colors. The Environmental Services program had to deal with a city workers strike, several days prior to the Games, which meant there were no waste and recycling services for the Games. The risk management plan was so well documented that another service provider was secured within 24 hours and the project was managed internally with virtually no impact to the Games.

Defining “risk” is the first step to take with your volunteer team or organization. Start identifying your risks early such as during the development of your milestone schedule. Risks are often confused with problems. To help volunteers distinguish between the two, we articulated the differences this way:

A risk is a problem waiting to happen.
Conversely a problem is a risk that has materialized.

We formulated our risk statements in such a way that made it clear for the volunteers to understand the concept, such as:

Given that it's raining while you are walking outside, then possibly you'll get wet.

By phrasing each risk statement this way, “given that…then possibly,” helped the volunteers realize that with every risk there is a perceived consequence. This helped to simplify the onerous task of risk identification. As changes in scope occur, it is necessary to reassess the risk statements. Risk must be assessed ongoing, throughout the life cycle of the event.

Once the risks were identified, they were quantified to determine just how much of a threat the risk was so that focus could be given to the most critical one(s). We stepped through the risks, reviewing with the volunteers, the following four steps:

1. Rated the probability of the risk occurring as high, medium, or low

2. Determined what the impact would be of that risk materializing as high, medium, or low

3. Prioritized the risk on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = low; 5 = high)

4. Determined an impact date—a date when that risk may become a problem

We followed the above quantification exercise with risk response analyses where we decided how to respond to the risk—accept, avoid, or mitigate. At this point, all risks that had a mitigation and contingency plan were assigned to a team member. This person was responsible to ensure the plan was carried out, as required.

The last component of our risk management plan was to track and control our risks. The process of tracking risks is very much the same as tracking other project activities. It involved periodic and regular reviews.

At the end of the entire risk management process, the volunteers were certainly feeling somewhat overwhelmed. All the information was documented into a single template, which tied it all together for the volunteers. Presenting it this way facilitated their ability to understand why the exercise was required and recognized the value that it brought and would bring in the future.

The last step is perhaps the most important but least considered step of risk management. It is not enough to document the risks of a project. They must be effectively communicated to all parties involved. This includes not only your volunteer team, but also any decision-makers and sponsors. Within the Games organization, there were a significant number of divisions experiencing crossover responsibilities. For this reason, communication of risks between divisions was absolutely essential to ensure any dependencies were identified and understood. As an example, Marketing was in a separate division from the Box Office portfolio. The success of tickets sales was largely dependent on the marketing campaign/strategy implemented by that division. It was a huge risk to the success of the Box Office program and through communication of each other's plans; we were able to mitigate this risk.

Risk management was likely the most complex project management concept for our volunteers to grasp. Once completed, however, they fully supported the time and effort required to complete such a plan.


Working with volunteers and being in volunteer organizations is a very rewarding experience. Many long-term relationships are created and a stronger bond to your community is established. Introducing project management into this mix can enhance the success of your events, as we have discussed in this paper—we even defined the 2001 Canada Summer Games a project, just so we could manage it! We chose to focus on three main areas of project management—time, communication, and risk—to highlight some of the challenges faced in introducing project management methodology into a community event or volunteer organization. With every challenge, though, there is an equal opportunity to achieve success and it is up to those of us in the project management profession to seize those opportunities, share our knowledge and expertise in a field that has become our foundation for most everything we do.

We hope that although you can see introducing project management methodology to volunteers has its moments of “pain,” it also has its moments of fun with occasions to laugh with the volunteers and at ourselves. Some times project managers have been accused of being anal, if you can believe it—just ask some of our volunteers!

We also would like to close with a couple more points for consideration when working with volunteers. Patience is a virtue, for sure, and certainly required when taking on the task of introducing project management in your organization. What seems to be an obvious way for you to manage is not always clear with your volunteers. When that occurs, it is important to have the patience to help the volunteers understand what you are trying to do—put it into layman's terms, as we have previously mentioned.

Remember to recognize your volunteers throughout the life cycle of your event, as you would with any project. When you have an event, like the Games or participate in an organization that spans a number of years of involvement, it is important to show appreciation to the volunteers throughout the years. This helps to keep them motivated and also fosters a greater team spirit. Everyone likes to have his or her contributions acknowledged. Various bar-beques and golf tournaments were organized to celebrate significant milestones. Informal get-togethers occurred frequently—impromptu social hours at a local establishment, after a status or planning session, plus the occasional breakfast meeting. By creating a variety of ways to celebrate and meet, ensures you will discover a way to motivate all your volunteers, in a way they appreciate. We also provided tangible items such as thank-you letters, collectable pins and laminated posters for core volunteers and selected customers and suppliers. These items may seem small but will serve as reminders of their contribution to their community, providing a sense of pride and accomplishment for years to come.

In conclusion, we hope that we have shown that project management is not just for the office anymore! It can be applied in almost everything we do and specifically, in our volunteer roles. The project management concepts that come natural to those of us in the field can be embraced by those unfamiliar to our domain and recognized as valuable. It can be a very worthwhile endeavor when we take the time to educate and coach volunteers and we hope we have demonstrated this through our sharing of our experiences.

Call anything a project and see how you can apply project management to it!

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA