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Project Management: Fine-tuning the Social Entrepreneur Side of Our Nonprofit

Submitted by: Zoe Madden-Wood on Sep 25th, 2012 at 8AM PDT

Three years ago the Leadership Learning Community made a stunning realization after looking at its balance sheets: the year that we built our largest reserve correlated with the volume of consulting projects we completed. Since then, LLC has been building up the consulting side of its nonprofit business to create additional revenue streams of support for our mission work. We’ve had the chance to optimize the way leadership development is conceived, developed, and implemented through foundation grants and through our consulting work with foundations and like-minded nonprofits.

A year ago, we were attracting a lot of interesting projects and realized that we now had a ‘good problem’. We needed projection tools that would help us estimate staff capacity to make informed decisions about when to take a project and when to reach out to our talented pool of affiliates. We were a successful nonprofit on our way to becoming a successful business, and without a lot of business acumen on staff. Natalia Castaneda Chaux, our communications director who came to us from the business sector, brought her knowledge and savvy to our transition. She identified an external operations consultant -- Paula Arrigoni -- and hired me as project manager so that we could develop LLC’s project management capacity.
Project Management ProcessesWe held regular weekly meetings and together the three of us created strong and methodical processes and tools for the four stages of project management: 1) cultivation, 2) starting the project, 3) monitoring, and 4) evaluation. Being a community of learning, we hope we can share what we’ve learned with you and help you in your own monitoring processes.
We’ll talk about the several stages of project management in detail in later articles, but before we get into those topics in depth, we have to start with the basics. The basis of our project management system had to start out on the foundation of several tools and systems.
Time tracking
We have been using Harvest for over a year now and it allows for creation of project budgets, time tracking, reports on hours, expenses integration and invoice generation. Time tracking is integral for figuring out whether a project is on budget and on track, but it also provides the strong benefit of historical data that can inform new project estimations. Luckily, this tool is old hat for us, but without it, we simply couldn’t move forward.
Online collaboration
We realized we needed a tool to keep track of all of our projects in a way that any of our staff could easily access and be updated on. After looking for online project management tools, we found Basecamp -- a user-friendly system that specializes in, “To-dos, files, messages, schedules, and milestones.”
We added all of our current projects to Basecamp, including fund development and the projects that are still in the cultivation process. We have now hit our three-month anniversary using Basecamp and the entire staff has been using the tool to optimize our work.
Each project is listed separately on the home page. Within the projects are tasks with assigned due dates and personnel -- and all of these due dates show up on the spiffy calendar feature. The greatest benefit is the discussion feature, which allows everyone to have conversation threads back and forth on projects in a place more accessible and findable than personal email accounts. This also has the benefit of letting people actually take vacations. As long as Basecamp is updated, other staff members can take over where vacationers left off, allowing for uninterrupted beach lounging and better continuation on the projects for our clients and funders.
Capacity assessment
Staffing and capacity are major factors when looking at a new project. We’ve now created a quarterly process around just figuring out how (and when) each individual staff member is allocated to projects. This allows us to anticipate who might be overallocated, who might have spare time, when to utilize affiliates and whether the timing for a new project is a fit. .
This can be achieved by a simple matrix: person by project. Each person fills out their own hours for each project and we have a staff meeting discussing whether everyone’s in the right place. My preference is to use Google docs as a tool for this matrix, as it allows everyone to fill out the spreadsheet simultaneously.
Expense tool
Every nonprofit goes over their expenses for the year, but it’s important to incorporate this tool into the project management process. On a yearly basis, this tool can help evaluate whether projects were on budget, whether the projects covered the personnel costs and total expenses, and based on this information help determine if strategies need to be updated or changed in any way.
On a more immediate basis, since we’re including budget information about individual projects in separate tabs of our Excel sheets, we can use it as another tool to assess the budget vs actuals in real time.
Last, but not least, TIMELINES! Each project should have its own timeline, which we’ll discuss in more detail later, but most importantly, a timeline for the whole organization allows everyone to stay organized around common goals -- and can also point out when months have quite a few overlapping projects. There are several templates out there for timelines, and we’ve found a few publicly-available Google timeline templates that work well for us.
Many nonprofits are making similar treks towards diversifying their revenue streams and having to expand their business acument to keep pace. Catch our next article in the series next month where we discuss further project management processes, for those leaders in the nonprofit industry who are expanding their consulting side.