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Nonprofit Project Management: 5 Principles for Teams of All Sizes

13 min read
March 30, 2023
Tyler King headshot
Tyler King
Agile Practice Manager, Neon One
Journal to indicate nonprofit project management

Is your team managing projects effectively? If you answered “maybe,” you’re not alone. Although nonprofit project management is conducted informally in many organizations, taking time to evaluate how you’re managing projects can positively impact your outcomes.

In this article, we’ll cover the why and how of nonprofit project management and outline five principles derived from the Scrum project management framework and broader Agile philosophy.

Before we begin, remember that a project can be defined in a variety of ways—a fundraising campaign, an IT upgrade, a process improvement initiative, etc. If it requires a team of people to pull it off and has a complex list of tasks that need to be done, using the principles below will help make accomplishing the goal a smoother, more organized process.

Benefits of Project Management for Nonprofits

When you learn about project management principles and tools—especially systems like Scrum and Agile—it may be tempting to think that a project management process is only for traditional businesses with a lot of resources. But project management has a host of benefits for nonprofit organizations, including:

  1. Maintaining a balanced workload. A nonprofit project management process helps your team define roles and responsibilities and ensures no one gets burnout from taking on too many tasks.
  2. Keeping track of financial resources. Without an organized project that includes a budget to track, it’s easy to lose sight of how much money has been spent.
  3. Monitoring milestones and deadlines. Project management goes beyond saying “we want to do X thing by Y date” into making it happen with set milestones and task deadlines.
  4. Improving collaboration. Use your project management process to keep everyone on the same page and create communication touchpoints that will help your team check in on tasks and overall progress.
  5. Gaining clarity in planning. Project management helps you see an overview of all that needs to be done to accomplish and project, define goals, objectives, and specific tasks, and recognize any gaps that need to be addressed.

Now that we’ve covered why nonprofit project management is beneficial and important, let’s move into how. We’ve found the Agile philosophy and Scrum framework helpful in our teams’ project management. Here’s how to apply those systems to project management for nonprofits.

Agile Philosophy and Scrum Project Management Framework Overview

Agile and Scrum are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re actually a little different. 

To put it simply, Agile is the umbrella term for a way of thinking about project management. It’s a philosophy that emphasizes collaboration and working in teams and was created as a better way to develop software that meets customer needs.

Scrum is a project management framework that falls under the Agile umbrella. It directly contrasts the more traditional “waterfall” approach. The waterfall approach to nonprofit project management is a phase-based planning method that relies on a cascading series of tasks that lead to an end goal. Tasks often move from one individual to another with little team collaboration.

On the flip side, Scrum can be visualized as a loop. The goal is to be able to identify the most valuable work, prioritize that first, and keep improving how quickly you can deliver. It leverages the shared knowledge and skills of team members in order to complete complex work more quickly.

The Scrum framework was co-created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland in the early 1990s as a way to improve the process of software development. However, the term itself and its principles are based on Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikuhiro Nonaka’s article “The New New Product Development Game,” published roughly ten years prior. The roots of this framework stem from an understanding that a team’s collective ability to solve complex problems far outweighs the ability of an individual. 

Here’s how you can take the fundamental aspects of this framework and use them in your projects.

5 Principles for Efficient Nonprofit Project Management 

There are many aspects that make up an efficient nonprofit project management process. The five key principles below have shifted the way we manage projects at Neon One, and we believe they’ll change the way you think about projects at your own organization for the better.

Let’s get into it. 

Principle #1: Build Structures that Empower Problem-Solving

A common misconception in most workplaces is that it’s more efficient for one person to come up with a full plan of action and then tell a group of people how to do it. Instead, they should include their team in the problem-solving process.

The truth is: most answers lie within your team, not within one individual. 

This principle aims to move away from starting with a single solution and instead starting with a well-formed problem statement and then assembling a team to help solve it.  

Working together as a group from the very beginning can reduce unnecessary phone calls and emails while increasing employee engagement. 

Putting It Into Practice

When kicking off a project, appoint a project owner (a person responsible for prioritizing the work appropriately) and a Scrum Coach (a person responsible for removing obstacles and keeping the team moving forward). Then make sure you have all the team members necessary to carry out the work.

Every two weeks, host a planning meeting to map out the plan for the next two weeks (a ‘sprint’). Sprint planning meetings are a great time to discuss ideas, priorities, and obstacles to help refine your work and improve your process. 

Then, break the work down into smaller pieces (called “stories”). The goal is to accomplish as many stories as possible within each sprint. 

The project owner clarifies which work is the highest priority, and the team strategizes how best to get the job done. 

It is at this moment when “aha!” moments usually happen. As the team discusses how best to accomplish the work, new ideas will come from this collaborative brainstorm. 

To keep everyone on the same page throughout the sprint, hosting daily 15-minute stand-ups that focus on what needs to be done, what’s in progress, and what’s stuck is crucial. This is where your Scrum Coach comes into play. The Scrum Coach ensures that any challenges the team runs into can get fixed as quickly as possible to keep everything running smoothly. 

Principle #2: Build Something Small and Test It

Validating or disproving your ideas will allow you to use your resources more effectively and ensure that you’re meeting an actual need. 

When planning a project, you will hear a lot of great ideas. But, you’re working with limited time, resources, and staff. That’s why it’s essential to start with two to three of your team’s best ideas and test them before moving forward. 

These small test projects may seem like a waste of time or resources, but it’s actually the most important thing you can do when embarking on a new project or initiative. 

Testing new solutions helps us avoid our cognitive biases toward “what’s worked in the past.” Better yet, you reduce the risk of creating a program that is not useful.

Putting It Into Practice

Run small pilot programs to test ideas and see what you and your team learn. Assess your community’s response to the initiative and your own team’s capacity to carry it out. 

Always be sure to keep an open mind, as you may discover that previous assumptions were completely wrong. 

For example, testing in nonprofit project management might look like this: Perhaps you want to create an after-school program at your local school. Before investing a considerable amount of resources into designing the program, test out a couple of types of after-school activities to gauge the response. Try running different types of activities for a week to see what engages the greatest number of students. Using these findings, you are now able to craft a more effective program that meets your school’s needs with preliminary data to back it up.

Testing your assumptions is something you can (and should!) build into all phases of your project. Taking a little extra time to test ideas pays off big in maximizing the value you can create. 

Principle #3: Estimate Effort With Velocity, Not Time

Humans are not particularly good at accurately estimating time over a long stretch. After about a minute, our brains have a hard time predicting with any level of accuracy.

Don’t believe me? Try sitting alone in a room without a watch or a clock and guessing when 10 minutes have passed. 

Without sitting and counting every second for 10 minutes, you’re going to be pretty far off from an accurate guess. This effect only gets larger and larger as we try to predict larger and larger amounts of time. 

So, how do we get better at forecasting how long a project might take?

We measure the task’s complexity and the effort needed to complete it. Each task (story) you created should have an estimate with it. 

In Scrum, this is called determining ‘velocity,’ which measures the relative effort and complexity of a task compared to the other necessary tasks. 

Putting It Into Practice

Create a scale to measure how complicated or straightforward tasks are relative to other tasks that you need to complete. 

At Neon One, we tend to use the Fibonacci sequence (1,2,3,5,8) because we like being able to sum the numbers, but any relative sizing tool is fine. Some examples might be t-shirt sizes (XS, SM, M, L) or animals (mouse, cat, dog, bear, etc.). 

The point is to get the team comfortable with estimating as a group and to establish a standard scale of relative sizes by which to do so.

For example, building an appeal audience might be a 1, but drafting each individual appeal might be a 3 or a 5 depending on audience size, whether the appeal needs rewriting, how much research needs to be completed ahead of time, etc. 

In the beginning, you won’t know how much your team can accomplish in a given sprint – that’s okay! As you work through each sprint, continue recording your accomplishments and compare them to the previous sprint’s accomplishments. You are always seeking to increase how much work your team can take on. 

After a few sprints, you’ll be able to measure how much work can be done in a given two-week period, which will help you forecast how long the remaining tasks in your project might take.  

Principle #4: What You Can’t Measure, You Can’t Improve

Most people want to feel like their work has a “purpose” and that their team is striving toward something together. 

Adopting good metrics for measuring success ensures that your team always has a solid grasp of their impact. It lets everyone know when the actions of the team are helping or hurting the project as a whole.

What makes a “good” metric? It’s measurable, tied to the goals of the project, and encourages the results you’re looking to achieve.

Putting It Into Practice

Focus on one or two key metrics for measuring success. The idea is not to measure everything, just to measure the most important things. Remember that these are hypotheses as well, and stay open to change. You may realize there are better ways to measure your success down the road. 

For example, if I was creating the after-school program mentioned earlier, I might choose to measure the number of students who signed up for the program and how many after-school days they attended. If my goal was to create engaging content that keeps students coming back each day, I might use this metric as a benchmark to see if the work my team was doing is moving the needle. 

When you meet for longer meetings, provide the team with an update on metrics.  Remember that the metrics are only one part of the story—they show things that have happened in the past, but they don’t tell you why something is or isn’t working. Equally important to the numbers is the time you spend with your team discussing how things can be improved and what factors should be considered in measuring project performance.

Principle #5: Keep Iterating Your Nonprofit Project Management

Iterating is a huge part of improving project management processes and creating successful project teams. Rather than viewing this as a bad thing (i.e. it wasn’t perfect the first time), view it as a natural part of working in a process-oriented way. You can’t possibly know everything upfront when launching a complex project. Your goal should be to continually learn as quickly as possible and adapt with that knowledge to keep improving.

When you begin, everything will feel confusing or messy. Holding space for your team to address and potentially solve this confusion will create a culture of feedback within your team. 

In addition to improving your own processes, your team will get demonstratively better at giving and receiving feedback. You also create an environment where employees can take smart risks and learn from them.  

Putting It Into Practice

Build in time to review the previous sprint before planning the next one. Ask your team what went well that they want to keep and what they’d like to improve next time (known as a “retrospective” in Scrum). 

This is often what people want to skip because it can be a bit awkward in the beginning and can take some prodding to get folks to feel comfortable sharing feedback with each other. Stick with it – making honest communication and discussing challenges a normal practice will help you identify issues and opportunities as they surface instead of letting them go unnoticed. 

Need more nonprofit leadership advice?

Check out our ebook, “The Top 5 Problems Facing Nonprofit Leadership Teams (and How to Solve Them!)”, and get actionable tips on how to combat the social good sector’s biggest concerns.

Get the Guide

Further Reading on Nonprofit Project Management

If this brief overview has piqued your interest, I recommend checking out Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time as the next stop on your journey.

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