How is project management different in a nonprofit organization?

I do not want to mislead you with the title of this post. In my experience, effective IT project management is what it is, whether the project exists in a for-profit company or nonprofit organization. However, the culture surrounding the project and some of the challenges differ.

To restate previous content, projects have a specified beginning and end with a product or deliverable, as opposed to operations (business or nonprofit), which are ongoing. In nonprofit organizations, a project may involve setting up an IT network, building a user-friendly warehouse of information or creating a website to collect donations.

Because our friends at the Project Management Institute believe that the discipline and standards associated with project management apply equally to projects in nonprofit organizations, they created the PMI Educational Foundation in 1990 to advance “project management knowledge and the application of project management concepts and theory by society.” Through their Foundation, they offer training and scholarships in project management.

Here are my thoughts on similarities and differences from working IT projects at both types of organizations.

Project Management similarities between for-profit and nonprofit organizations

  • Projects need a plan that identifies goals, defines scope, assigns tasks and has measurable outcome criteria.
  • The project must further the strategic goals of the organization (Should tie to some organizational objective).
  • Projects need a schedule with task detail, dependencies, assignments and periodic reviews.
  • Resources must be acquired, held accountable and managed. See the post on Managing Virtual Teams.
  • How much the project costs really matters – and may be the deciding criteria for whether it is undertaken.
  • Tools for planning, cost and schedule tracking and collaboration facilitation help project managers do a better job (here are some additional comments on tools: “Six Views of Project-Management Software” from TechSoup – for nonprofit organizations and “Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams” and “A Fool with a Tool is Still a Fool” from previous “Fear no Project” posts.
  • Effective communication with key stakeholders is essential.
  • Risks must be identified and managed. You don’t have to go overboard- just identify the most likely and highest impact risks.
  • Project managers should expect changes in the plan during execution.  Be flexible! Expect to have to change the plan to accommodate changes in the environment or organization.

Project Management differences between for-profit and nonprofit organizations (in no particular order J)

  • While folks managing for-profit companies usually have some academic and experiential exposure to project tools and project management requirements, individuals in nonprofit organizations may not.  Actually they quite often do not have a background in project management – so they might try to get the assistance of someone who does.
  • Nonprofit staff and management may understand less about technology and technical terms than people in similar positions in for-profit companies – although maybe not. I have met some really tech-savvy people in nonprofits and some technology-challenged individuals in large companies.
  • Service-oriented nonprofit organizations may find creating measureable or numerical performance criteria challenging, as they are more accustomed to working in a subjective environment.
  • Predictable charitable or grant funding for nonprofit multi-year projects may be even more at risk than funding is in for-profit organization projects. (Agile project development methods provide a process that allows completion of useful tasks without reaching all project goals, this is a way to make progress in case funding is cut or a grant proposal not funded in second or out years.)
  • Stakeholders may be more diverse as nonprofit organizations frequently interface with government and private agencies as well as having ties within their communities. So using stakeholder techniques is even more critical in nonprofit projects.
  • Nonprofits are eligible for free or low cost PM software like that available from TechSoup.

If you have worked on IT projects for a nonprofit organization, please share your insights via comments.

Other resources for managing non-profit or volunteer programs:

The Lazy Project Manager's Blog

The Home of Productive Laziness Thoughts

Thoughts, experience, tips and tricks on issues affecting managers and project management

A Girl's Guide to Project Management

Project Management musings for one and all

LeadingAnswers: Leadership and Agile Project Management Blog

Thoughts, experience, tips and tricks on issues affecting managers and project management

Project Management Hut

Thoughts, experience, tips and tricks on issues affecting managers and project management

Herding Cats

Thoughts, experience, tips and tricks on issues affecting managers and project management


Pushing the Edges Out ...


Just another site