|How do I plan and organize a project?||Follow the basic stages of project management: Initiating, Planning, Designing, Implementing, Evaluating, and Closing.|
Tomorrow morning, millions of nonprofit workers will show up for work. In one office, an events coordinator will be planning a conference. Down the street, a program director will be working on a grant proposal for a new initiative. Across the country, an executive director will start to draft next year’s budget. Meanwhile, an intern will be quietly trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing. Every one relies on project management skills, whether they know it or not.
Every organization, every cause, every role, every person is a little bit different. But every organization needs people with one specific skill: project management. Whether you are designing programs or services, raising money, or bringing peers together, every team needs people who know how to plan and execute projects.
Project management is an invaluable universal skill. It should be taught in school and as part of an organization’s skill-building and training program. It rarely is, though. So, if you are one of millions of nonprofit professionals who feel the winds of chaos swirling around you, here are some of the basics.
Projects have start dates and end dates. They usually involve more than one person.
Programs don’t necessarily have specific end dates. They may not finish when certain goals are achieved, or the goal may never be truly “achieved”. Operating a food kitchen, running a shelter, or providing counselling services are all examples of ongoing programs that are not “projects”.
This is the most important part of project management, the part that everyone should understand. It’s okay to not know how to use project management software or how to motivate different types of people or how to structure meetings or how to update a budget. Those skills are super valuable if you want to manage projects (or organizations), but they aren’t essential for everyone.
Understanding project stages, on the other hand, is a game changer. Here are the three basic stages of every project:
Project planning is the stage that project managers love. It’s an important time, because it’s when you clarify your goals. It’s when you decide what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and who is responsible for each part of the project.
Project planning is a crucial time for senior leaders to either spell out their vision and expectations, or sign off on the plan developed by staff or a committee. When you create a project plan, you should always be open to the possibility that a project might not be worth pursuing. You might not have the skills or capacity to pull it off. It might take too long. Or the workload might exceed the potential for impact.
The planning stage ends when the team understands what needs to be done and leadership says “yep, we’re really going to do this.”
Some people call this “executing”, but that word conjures up images of the Grim Reaper. “Implementing” is the other common name. You could also call it the “Performance” or “Fulfilment” or “Enjoyment” phase, or whatever works for you.
Implementing is the doing part. It’s the heart of any project, when the plan comes to life.
Project implementation depends on your program staff and volunteers, on the people who perform the tasks, carry out the work, create the impact. Their work is easier when they have a clear goal, the right mix of team members, and the resources to do their work well (i.e., a strong plan). But ultimately, their talent and effort have a big influence on the way a project turns out.
The implementation phase may last a few hours or a few years. Sometimes it ends naturally (like the end of an event) and sometimes leadership needs to make an intentional decision to wrap it up. Ending the implementation phase and closing a project is a healthy, normal, practice; it’s not something to be avoided or feared.
When you close a project, you stop doing the implementation work. You decide whether or not the goal was achieved. You file away all the materials, finalize your budget, thank participants, and you leave the project behind.
If your project was funded by a grant or a contract, you may have formal reporting requirements. If your project staff are moving on to other things, you may need them to handover all of the project materials and archive all of the information. You’ll close out your bookkeeping accounts and tie up any other loose ends.
Admin and communications staff are key in the closing phase of a project. Admin staff ensure nothing slips though the cracks and the institutional knowledge gained is preserved. They ensure partners and funders can be updated and there is a record of how resources were spent. Communications staff decide how a project is remembered. They decide how it will be summarized for partners or the general public and how to share your insights. Most importantly, comms people will tease out the stories and key messages that help people understand what happens next.
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is never closing down projects. They either don’t take the time to do the wrap up, so information is lost. Or they just keep running a project forever, long after the original purpose was fulfilled and the funds have been spent. Leaders should help the team identify the end of a project, celebrate the experience, and ensure there is a sense of closure.
Before the Planning phase comes the Initiating phase. You’ll see Initiation in most project management models. It’s good to know what it is, but it’s not something that requires a lot of energy.
Before you can plan a project, the idea for a project has to hatch. A project idea needs to form and a decision needs to be made to do something new. You don’t really “manage” the Initiating phase because you don’t really know what ideas will turn into projects. When you initiate a project, you might say “I’d love to collaborate on something some day” and then wait two years until the right opportunity comes along. You might dream of creating an app to serve your clients better, but the technology to do it properly hasn’t been invented yet. A project might emerge from a committee or network that you’ve been part of for years.
The point is, all projects go through an incubation phase, but not every idea you incubate will become a project. There is no point in tracking or managing things during this phase — just be aware that it happens.
A project idea moves from Initiating to Planning when the idea becomes clear enough, funding is secure enough, and capacity is sufficient to deserve serious attention. All projects need buy-in from a leadership before moving to the Planning phase.
The Designing phase is an Entremission invention. We like to add a Design phase in between Planning and Implementing because so many non-profit projects demand it. Planning a gala? You’ll spend a year designing the event and a few hours actually implementing it. Same thing for conferences, speeches, press conferences, fundraising appeals, websites, apps, databases, etc.
For many non-profit projects, the design phase is 90% of the work — distinct from planning and distinct from implementation. It’s too important to miss and it’s too time consuming to do it without resources.
During the design phase, there is close coordination between leadership and program staff. You usually need experienced talent or subject-matter experts to do design work. Event planners know how to negotiate venue contracts and find the right caterers. Designers and developers know how to plan a website, identify the pages you need and the hierarchy for organizing the information. Scientists know how to develop a water monitoring protocol. Policy experts know how to develop language for a new law.
Executives and managers often don’t have this deep expertise, or the expertise they have becomes dated; they definitely don’t have deep expertise in every single aspect of an organization’s work. Leaders need to follow the design process to ensure what is being created serves the original goals of the project and the community meant to be served. They also need to secure resources, support, and momentum to sustain the project in the next phases.
Rushing the design phase is one of the most common traps nonprofits fall into. They may secure funding to implement a project and assume that the planning and design work can be done for free. They may commit to a fundraising event that raises less than it cost to organize. Or they may commit to project deliverables that are impossible to deliver. The design phase can be humbling, but it’s also where you sow the seeds of greatness.
If you think of it in terms of theatre, the planning phase is when the script is written. The designing phase is when the show is cast, the sets are built, and scenes are rehearsed. Implementing begins when the curtain goes up on opening night.
The Designing phase ends when it’s time to launch the project, perform the work, put on the show, go public, etc.
Most contemporary project management models include an Evaluating phase after Implementing and before Closing. This phase can also be called “Reporting”, “Monitoring”, or “Performance & Control”.
Evaluation is when you look at a project and evaluate its impact. What were the results of the work? Was the goal achieved? What was learned? What resources actually went into the project? Was there a difference between what you thought the project would require and what it actually required? Did the project generate good impact relative to the costs of the project, or is there a simpler way to achieve the same results? If you were doing the project again in the future, what would you do differently? What should be done exactly the same way?
Evaluation is so important to the learning process and so important for accountability that it does deserve to be its own phase in the project process. In mission-driven work, it is a crucial aspect of every project. We must understand the impact of what we do. We must learn from everything we do.
Some funders love and demand this work, some see it as wasted “overhead”. To be clear: evaluation is not an administrative activity and it should not be an optional step. If you are worried that your funders see it as overhead, embed evaluation tasks in the Implementing phase (i.e., program costs) to ensure they get the attention they need.
Evaluation mostly happens at the end of the project, but you should consider it during the planning process. You need to identify what you are going to monitor and measure in advance, so that you can collect the necessary data during the Implementing phase and be ready to evaluate it at the end.
Program staff often do most of the data collection, while leaders ensure it is safe to share data and safe to learn. For evaluation to work, leaders need to nurture a culture of curiosity and openness. They should be careful not to train teams to only share success stories or to over-state the impact of a project.
Our missions aren’t served when we pretend we’ve solved every problem or when we make people think it’s easy to do good work with no resources.
Once the Evaluation is done, a project is ready for Closing.
If you use all six project phases, your project management model will look like this:
A project plan is a guess as to how a goal can be achieved using the available resources. It’s not meant to be a set of orders that people blindly follow. It’s never a perfect prediction of the future. You’ll make a plan, then update it every time you move from one phase to the next.
Different members of the team will shine during different stages of the project. Leaders green light projects, set the north star, secure resources, and ensure the work has meaning. Managers clear the path, allocate resources, prioritize work, and make sure information is flowing freely. Program staff, the implementers, do the actual project work, creating the impact through their talent and effort. Evaluators ensure accountability and keep knowledge from being lost. Communicators tell the story of the work, explaining the impact, inspiring others to pursue similar goals. Everyone learns.
When you know what phase a project is in, you know what work needs to be done. You know how you fit in. You know what to expect from the people around you. This is how teams are built. This how change is made.
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