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The One Thing Nonprofits Need To Deliver Projects Successfully

Nonprofits are on a mission. They envision a better world and they hire people who have specific skillsets to complete the work that will make a difference. But often—in their pursuit of good stewardship—they overlook a critical layer that actually leads to good stewardship: dedicated project management.

Here's how it goes... After investing valuable time and money developing a vision and strategy, and presenting it in a way that rallies the team and donors who are moved by the mission, nonprofit leaders hand that vision and strategy over to their incredibly talented team to “make it so.”

That incredibly talented team is packed with expert writers, developers, designers, translators, and volunteers who have perfected their crafts. But, they may never have learned the craft of breaking down a big idea into more digestible, manageable pieces that can be delegated, executed, tracked, and measured from start to finish.

The Bridge to Success

That’s where solid project management comes in. It can be the difference between a successful mission and a failure. Project leaders act as a bridge, enabling the rest of the people in organizations to focus on doing what they do best!

Image showing how project managers operationalize strategy

Consider Patrick Lencioni’s concept of The 6 Types of Working Genius, which may help illustrate my point:

Nonprofits are often led by people who have the geniuses of Wonder (W) and Invention (I). They are innovators and idea people who are passionate about and naturally skilled at thinking of new ways to make a difference in the world.

In order to make their vision a reality, these W & I leaders need to hire people who will catch the vision and take it to completion. Many times, these leaders hire people with the genius of Tenacity; these are the people who love to Get. Stuff. Done.

Missing Geniuses

Meanwhile, three other “working geniuses” are often bypassed: Discernment (D), Galvanizing (G), and Enablement (E). In many cases, people with these geniuses are project leaders who are:

  • Asking questions about the strategy and thinking it through—ensuring it’s reasonable, actionable, and operational.

  • Preparing teams to spring into action and equipping them to do what they can uniquely do.

  • Organizing the work in a manageable way so the teams can work in connection with one another—not in competition.

  • Running alongside the teams, looking for hurdles, tracking progress, and ensuring that the senior leaders know how the project is going and what they can report back to the donors and supporters who are funding these dreams.

Every endeavor needs a leader on the team who’s thinking this way and taking the initiative and ownership to deliver the project successfully on time, on budget. That’s solid project management.

What does project management cost?

So, how much does dedicated project management cost?

It depends. (Of course it does. 🙄 😆 ) But a general rule of thumb is 10% of your project’s total cost should be allocated to project management. That can include things like:

  • Allocation toward the salary and benefits of a project manager on staff or a contractor

  • A project management tool and other communication software, along with the necessary seat licenses

  • Some travel budget because in-person time on projects, especially at the beginning, is vital! And the longer the project is expected to run, the more critical it is to meet in-person periodically is if you don’t work on-site together.

10%?!?!? That’s a lot!

Ten percent may sound expensive, but investing in project management makes a world of difference to the success of projects in several ways.

  • Projects are 2.5 times more likely to be successful when PM practices are implemented.

  • Organizations that invest in PM practices waste 28 times less money.

  • 73% of organizations that use a formal project management approach always or often have met the goal or intent.

  • According to time management statistics, project managers are crucial to project success. If you try to do everything by yourself, you could see your productivity drop by 40%. 

That’s good stewardship right there.

Are you seeing the need for a project manager? If you’re in the middle of a project, and the budget is already set, read our blog How (& When) to Hire a Project Manager for tips on whether to hire a contractor or look within your own teams for these skills.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a proposal for a new project: Plan for the 10% now, before you even submit it. And don’t let anyone talk you out of it!

Contrary to what some people say, project management is not “overhead.” It’s not “admin.” It’s not “fluff.” It’s the bridge that will help you and your team turn those grant proposals into reality and get your highest-priority projects across the finish line.


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