Systemic project management is a highly specialized disciple that people in the business world are generally familiar with, even if they have little or no experience managing projects themselves. In the nonprofit world, especially for smaller organizations with limited resources who are looking to make a high degree of social impact, formal training in project management may be limited. 

What is project management?

However, many of the actions and outcomes social impact leaders are looking to achieve resemble what in the business world would be called a project, which the Project Management Institute (PMI), a certifying body within the disciple, defines as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”

The basic definition of project management sounds fairly straightforward, and many of the enterprise that nonprofit organizations undertake, from delivering services with a high degree of social impact to raising money from donors or foundations, fit PMI’s definition of a project.

Why project management?

The major advantage of thinking about your mission and goals in terms of projects is that social impact, which can feel incredibly abstract at times, can be defined in terms of concrete and measurable deliverables. By breaking down your mission and strategic plan into projects, which are always time-bound and clearly defined, you are positioning yourself to understand and then explain the social impact your organization is having.

Project management principles and practices have wide application in a variety of fields. These strategies and approaches have developed over time, in response to industry- and sector-specific needs. As a social impact leader, you may benefit from adapting and adopting aspects of these approaches to fit your needs. So, if you are a social impact leader, learning some basic principles of strategic project management can be highly beneficial. 

Understanding the purpose of project management without formal training can be tricky, but social impact leaders like you do not need a degree or specialized certifications.  A few key ideas will help keep your organization’s strategic project management manageable.

Project Life Cycles

If we take a page from biology for a moment, then we can think about projects in terms of life cycles: any project is going to pass through a series of stages, which a predictable and repeatable. Theorists of project management have studied these cycles at length and have devised strategies and approaches for planning and managing each stage.

Recalling that a project is by definition temporary and unique, rather than infinitely ongoing, then we can plot the a project’s life cycle along a spectrum from inception to reflection after the fact. Although different schools of thought may give different names to the phases a project passes through, there are basically four stages:

  • Planning: goals are set and outcomes are defined at this stage; deadlines are considered and resources are identified; major tasks and workflows are designed.

Tip: at the planning stage, think in terms of action verbs. That can help clarify the essential tasks that comprise a larger project and identify personnel or resources needed. Translating ideas or desires into the actions needed to bring them about can make planning more effective.

  • Initiation: this stage is where you bring your team together, present final budgets, give instructions and conclude all the preliminary steps needed to have your team get down to work. This stage also starts the clock (remember: a project is always bound by time, or else it is not a project).

Tip:hold a formal kick-off event that lets your team and stakeholders know that things are now underway. As long as every team member has a sense of what they need to be doing at the present moment, your project is in good shape.

  • Implementation: this is the action stage, where tasks are being completed according to whatever workflow and schedules you have defined. As a manager, your role is to ensure open communication and to monitor as aspects of the project.

Tip:  identity a project management system that you are your team can use easily. You may not want a steep learning curve, as mastering project management systems can be projects in and of themselves. But free options like Trello are fairly intuitive and can keep everyone on task and on target while ensuring that everyone on the team knows what is going on.

  • Closing: this is the stage where you deliver the results, whatever they may be. Once the deliverables have been presented, reflective assessment is crucial. The goal of this stage is to understand what worked and what could have worked better.

Tip: because there are always different ways to phrase things, always translate reflective concepts into positive or neutral language. Instead of saying “we did not communicate as well as we could have at that point in time,” translate that idea into “we can improve communication by . . .” This rhetorical adjustment will keep your team constructively focused and future-oriented.

Luckily, basic project management training is widely available. And it is not necessary to spend money on advanced certifications or degrees; lots of resources available that will give you some basic project management training at little or no cost; here are some ideas to keep in mind when researching possible resources:

  • Apply some basic information management principles: consider the age of resource (the date it was created or last updated), the credibility of the information being presented, and the purpose of the resource or demonstration (does the organization offering the resource have an agenda?).
  • Consider your own time: look for resources whose complexity aligns with, and in turn supports, your own schedule. If a multi-year advanced management degree is not a viable option, there are many alternatives to fit a range of schedules. 
  • Understand your own learning style: Can you teach yourself from articles and resources, or do you need more direct instruction and feedback? Regardless of your learning preferences, consider developing a retrieval practice for yourself, which can be scheduled into your day. 

Understanding intersections between the social impact goals of your organization and what generally constitutes a project in management terms can be incredibly beneficial to your organization’s effectiveness. Project management for nonprofit organizations has widespread use and can be a great return on investment in the area of professional development for you and your team. 

If you are looking for more training in this area, consider some of our courses on project management for nonprofits, which have been designed with the social impact leader in mind.

December 5, 2019


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


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