Nonprofit Project Management: 5 Fundamentals for Teams of All Sizes

12 min read
April 01, 2021
Tyler King headshot
Tyler King
Project Manager, Neon One
Journal to indicate nonprofit project management

The one key questions that surround 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 Scrum and the philosophy of Agile software development that you could apply to projects at your nonprofit.

Before we begin, remember, a project can be anything — a fundraising campaign, an IT upgrade, a process improvement initiative. If it requires a team of people to pull it off, it’s a project. 

But first, what is Agile software development, 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 nonprofit project management. It’s thought of as philosophy or a manifesto related to managing software projects and teams. 

‘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. 

On the flip-side, Scrum can be visualized as a loop. The aim is to essentially ensure that you can identify the most valuable work, ensure that you’re doing that work first, and that you work to keep improving how quickly you can deliver.

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 many of the 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. 

In this post, we’ll illustrate how you can take some of the fundamental aspects of this framework and apply them to your own projects.

Nonprofit Project Management: 5 Fundamentals for Teams of All Sizes

There are many aspects of nonprofit project management, so this list is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, we opted to cover a few key concepts that might shift how you think about your next project or help with one that is currently underway. 

At the bottom of the article, we’ve included a follow-up resource if you want to dig deeper into some of the concepts discussed here. 

Let’s get into it. 

Principle #1: Build Structures that Empower Problem Solving

It’s a common misconception in most workplaces that it is 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, rather than including 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 that problem statement.  

Working together as a group from the very beginning can reduce unnecessary phone calls, emails, and chats 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 that can be used to map out what needs to be done in the next two weeks (also known as a ‘sprint’). These sprint planning meetings are a great time to discuss ideas, priorities, and typical project blockers to refine your work and improve your process. 

Work is broken down into smaller pieces (called “stories”), and the goal is to accomplish as many stories as possible within each sprint. 

The project owner helps the team understand 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 strategies arise that previously wouldn’t have occurred if a single individual was responsible for planning independently. 

To keep everyone on the same page throughout the two-week sprint, it’s crucial to host daily 15-minute stand-ups that are succinct and focused on what has to be done, what’s being done, and what’s stuck. This is where your Scrum Coach comes into play. The Scrum Coach ensures that any challenges the team runs into can get “un-stuck” as quickly as possible to keep everyone moving towards the goal. 

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 be met with 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 build out a new community program only to find out it isn’t what the community needed.

Putting Nonprofit Project Management 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, maybe try running a couple of one-off after-school activities for a week to see which activities engage the greatest number of students. Using these findings, you are now able to craft a more effective program that will better meet your school’s needs, and you have 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. We’re pretty good at estimating about a minute, but any longer, and our brains have a hard time predicting with any level of accuracy.

Don’t believe me? Just try sitting alone in a room without a watch or a clock anywhere, and guess when it feels like 10 minutes have passed. 

With the exception of sitting and counting every second for 10 minutes, I can almost say for sure that 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 measure the amount of time it will take to get a project done, if not by the clock? 

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 known as determining ‘velocity,’ and it’s done by measuring the relative effort and complexity of a task compared to the other tasks we need to accomplish. 

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 how much can get done and compare it to what was done in the previous sprint. You are always seeking to increase how much work your team can take on. 

After a few sprints have passed, you’ll have a relatively accurate measurement of how much work can be done in a given two-week period and can use that to better estimate how long it will take your team to finish the rest of the work for the project.  

Principle #4: What You Can’t Measure, You Can’t Improve in Nonprofit Project Management

Most people like to feel like their work has a “purpose” — that they’re striving toward something together. 

Adopting good metrics for measuring success is one way to make sure 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 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 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 numbers you’ve all agreed upon to measure impact. Discuss how any ongoing success can be repeated or improved upon

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), it should be viewed as a natural part of working in a process-oriented way. You can’t possibly know everything upfront when launching a complex project, so 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’d like to keep and what can be improved upon for next time (this is called 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 – or what nonprofit project management principles do you rely on to keep your team moving forward? Let us know in the comments below! We can’t wait to hear from you. 

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