Nonprofit Project Management: 5 Principles for Teams of All Sizes

11 min read
April 01, 2021
Tyler King headshot
Tyler King
Project 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 some time to evaluate how you’re managing projects can significantly impact your outcomes.

In this post, we’ll be talking about five principles derived from the Scrum and the framework and broader Agile philosophy that can be beneficial in nonprofit project management.

Before we begin, remember, a project can be defined in a variety of ways — a fundraising campaign, an IT upgrade, a process improvement initiative. If it requires a team of people to pull it off, and has a complex list of things that need to be done, it will probably benefit from the principles below. 

But first, what is Agile philosophy, and what is Scrum?

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 in reaction to needing a better way of developing software to meet customer needs.

‘Scrum’ is a particular framework that falls under this umbrella. It directly contrasts the more traditional “waterfall” approach that you may be familiar with within your own organization. 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. Often tasks move from one individual to another, with little team collaboration.

On the flip-side, Scrum can be visualized as a loop. The aim 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 to complete complex work more quickly.

For a brief bit of history – 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 apply them to your projects.

Nonprofit Project Management: 5 Principles for Teams of All Sizes

There are many aspects of nonprofit project management. These 5 key principles may shift how you think about current or future projects. 

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 start with a well-formed problem statement, 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 present.

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 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 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 come from this collaborative brainstorm. 

To keep everyone on the same page throughout the sprint, hosting daily 15-minute standups that focus on what needs to be done, what’s in progress, and what’s stuck are 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 & 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 power. 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 that you create 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. 

As an example – perhaps you want to create an after-school program at your local school. Before investing a considerable amount of resources in designing the program, test out a couple types of after-school activities to gauge the response. Perhaps run 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.

It’s worth noting that 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 anywhere, and guess 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 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, how much re-writing the appeal needs, how much needs to be researched 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 it 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 other 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” — that they’re striving toward something together. 

Adopting good metrics for measuring success ensures that your team always has a solid grasp on 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? Any measurable metric tied to the goals of the project that 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 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 I mentioned earlier, I might choose to measure the number of students who signed up for our program and how many after-school days they attended. If my goal was to create engaging content to keep students coming back each day, I might use this metric as a benchmark to see if the work my team was doing was moving the needle. 

When you meet for longer meetings, provide the team with an update on the 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 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 process, 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

There you have it!

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. 

We’d love to know if you are using Scrum and what nonprofit project management principles you rely on to keep your team moving. Let us know in the comments below! We can’t wait to hear from you. 


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