As a social impact leader you probably already know that project management for nonprofit organizations can get tricky in a hurry. In the private sector, project managers often receive specific training or credentialing. And managers usually gain valuable experience working on project teams within their company before they start leading projects themselves.

Organizations like yours, however, may rely on employees or volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds to deliver impact. While such diversity is hugely desirable and incredibly beneficial, it can pose challenges for undertaking strategic project management, especially when it comes to managing the assumptions that inform a project.

Assumptions in project management can be managed efficiently and effectively, once you recognize them and consider how they may be impacting the project and your relationship with stakeholders.

Identification Is Crucial

Let us undertake a quick demonstration. Up to this point, I have been operating under a powerful assumption. Have you caught what it is yet? 

If you said that I am assuming we all already share a common understanding of the basic definition of assumption, you would be correct! I have intentionally left the word assumption undefined to demonstrate how subtle and yet how dangerous assumptions can be. 

If you and I do not share a common understanding of what an assumption is, then my purpose in this post is more likely to fail. It is the same way with all projects, from a blog post to a major fundraising campaign.

In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that strategic project management can be defined almost entirely as the process of identifying and then dealing with assumptions. Yes, there are many different aspects of project management. But all those other aspects tend to run more smoothly whenever assumptions are effectively and efficiently managed.     

So What Exactly Is an Assumption?

An assumption is any piece of information that is accepted as true before it has been proven or demonstrated. This does not necessarily mean that assumptions are errors or lies. It does mean that we take for granted the truth of certain information, sometimes without being conscious we are doing it. 

The fact is, we need assumptions. And so naturally, we make lots of them. All the time. 

Consider the following situation. Your colleague stops by your windowless office and says, “You need an umbrella.” In that scenario, most of us are going to make an assumption: it is currently raining outside. We cannot prove it, but we are likely going to believe that it must indeed be raining. 

Another way to identify an assumption is to question what other things must already be true for a particular piece of information to have meaning or value. Staying with the umbrella example, ask yourself what must also be true for that statement to have meaning. Here are a few assumptions that are contributing meaning to the statement “You need an umbrella”:

  • You have to leave the office.
  • Leaving the office will put you in direct contact with the rain.
  • You have a desire or a need to stay dry.

These statements are examples of assumptions that are working behind the scenes to give meaning and value to the statement “You need an umbrella.” And if any of the assumptions are not true, then the need for an umbrella can be questioned.

We all make assumptions all the time. We have to. Assumptions are an organic part of any logical process. And they cannot be avoided. But they can be managed.

Managing Assumptions in Project Management

Many basic project management training programs recommend identifying assumptions whenever a new project is initiated. The first phase of any project generally involves drafting a charter or a similar document, detailing the project’s objectives, scope and constraints while also identifying stakeholders. 

An effective project charter should always include an outline of any assumptions that are being made. 

But sometimes creating an outline of assumptions is easier said than done. So, here are some tips for initiating the process of identifying assumptions when creating a project charter. 

  1. Establish a glossary of important terms that can be shared early and often with all stakeholders. That way, definitions are explicitly known. Such a list should also include commonly used words if they are crucial to the project. Often, the words we use most frequently are the hardest to define precisely, because familiarity breeds ambiguity. Jürgen Oschadleus, an expert in project management, gives the example of a costly setback that resulted when a client and vendor had different definitions of the word alarm. Such misunderstandings can be avoided if key terms are defined from the outset. Do not be afraid to ask stakeholders what they think a project’s key terms mean and to test your team’s understanding of those same key terms. 
  2. Identify any specific cultural contexts that may be impacting the project. Culture is a significant influencer of assumptions, because culture substantiates many of the beliefs and opinions we hold. Being sensitive to the impact culture is having on definitions and expectations can reveal assumptions that might otherwise remain hidden from the project team. Cultivating sensitivity to difference will improve all your project management principles and practices, especially your capacity to identify assumptions that may lie hidden in the values and norms of a particular culture. 
  3. Harness the energy of anxiety. If not properly managed, assumptions in project management can negatively impact morale. However, project managers can turn this negative into an advantage. You can build trust early by asking team members during the assumption identification process to share any fears they might have about the project. Then validate their trust by testing each concern. In addition to identifying assumptions you might otherwise have missed, this exercise, if done with empathy and validation, will build trust with your entire team.   

Playing the Doubting Game

All project management principles and practices are best undertaken from a position of constructive skepticism. Any piece of information that can impact the project’s outcome should be scrutinized to determine whether or not it qualifies as an assumption. If a piece of information is revealed to be an assumption, then the project manager can better assess its risk to—or predict its likely impact on—the project.      

You can assist your team and help the overall project by trying not to make assumptions in the first place. But since assumptions are inevitable, it is better to get into a habit of mind that promotes constructive skepticism. 

As a project manager, you can play the doubting game, a concept borrowed from rhetoric and composition theory, which also deploys the kind of critical thinking needed to manage assumptions. Try assuming every statement is an assumption until it can be proven otherwise. This is a great way for you and your team to collaborate and involve stakeholders, because it promotes questioning. Asking questions up front and throughout the project will increase the likelihood of a successful conclusion that satisfies all stakeholders.

Remember, assumptions are only bad when they are not recognized as such. Once identified, assumptions become a valuable resource for you as a manager and for your whole project team, as well as for all stakeholders. 

The true value of an assumption lies in the collaboration and communication it engenders.

Make sure to check out our catalog of free courses, including several that focus on project management principles and practices specifically designed for social impact leaders and organizations from the perspective of the nonprofit and NGO leader.

October 21, 2019



Gina is our Marketing Manager at Philanthropy U. She has a background in international education, international development and scaling enterprises.