How nonprofit project management differs from the corporate environment

Project management is not solely used by corporations and businesses. Organizations of any kind, whether they are a public agency or an industry watchdog, can employ the skills and talents of project managers in bringing their objectives and goals to fruition. The nonprofit sector is one such area where project managers (PMs) are in high demand. These advocacy groups and charities have many of the same needs as businesses in carrying out projects that improve internal procedures or quality of service. But for nonprofits, it’s the greater social positive, and not necessarily the financial bottom line, that dictates the project.

This reality means PMs will have to tweak their techniques and methodologies in some respects when working in a nonprofit environment. The outcomes are different, and so the oversight and guidance project managers provide must reflect those nuanced needs. This necessary adaptation can create challenges when it comes to achieving progress on a timeline and budget, or getting project collaborators. However, despite these obstacles, many project managers are drawn to nonprofit work because of the personal enrichment and fulfillment it can provide.

Here’s some advice for project managers to keep in mind when overseeing programs and initiatives in the nonprofit sector.

Remember not everyone there is full time

While nonprofits of a certain size can afford workforces, it’s more common that project managers will encounter a group whose staff are part-time employees and volunteers with other time commitments. PMs are accustomed to having direct reports and ironclad protocols when managing a project. These comparable luxuries of the business world are not always available to project managers in the nonprofit sector, which can sometimes come as a shock.

However, instead of seeing these decreased resources as an impediment to getting work done, PMs working for a nonprofit should take an honest assessment of their personnel and optimize what time volunteers can contribute. It will be incumbent on the PM to have conversations with the project stakeholders and staff to set realistic goals given the time and manpower at their disposal. This will also help avoid any conflict if a PM were to push too hard or be a bit too demanding for a nonprofit environment.

Stakeholders are also likely to be a lot more varied with nonprofits. There may be government liaisons or other board members from outside that PMs must answer to or take ultimate direction from, and pleasing all sides involved may be a bit more of a balancing act than project managers are accustomed to. However, remembering that greater consensus will produce higher quality results will help keep everyone on the same page.

Not every nonprofit will have tools

Aside from not having the same level of human capital as corporations, nonprofits don’t often boast the same level of infrastructure and internal capability. In fact, project managers are often brought into nonprofits to oversee the implementation of new technologies and systems.

In many instances, free tools and applications will be a PM’s best friend when working for a nonprofit, as they provide basic capability and usually entail less training, giving the team more flexibility. Google Sheets, for instance, is a popular free tool that doesn’t have much of a learning curve, and can facilitate the easy sharing and editing access that nonprofit teams need. Volunteers may not be centralized, and PMs need a solution they can rely on to track and monitor project results and data.. TechSoup Canada has a list of other tools (most with free options) that are particularly suited to nonprofit work.

Find a nonprofit that interests you

One of the most rewarding aspects of nonprofit project management work is the opportunity to give back or advocate for a cause that’s affected a project manager. Much as project managers choose a specialty in the corporate world that gels with their interests and skills – like construction, oil and gas, or financials – so too should PMs find a nonprofit that speaks to them.

There are any number of nonprofits, meaning PMs have a wide availability to pick from. For instance, there are groups that raise funds for cancer patients, support homes for victims of domestic abuse, promote animal welfare and help disadvantaged children pay for college. This is just a small sample set of the causes that nonprofits span, which  demonstrates the opening PMs have to find one that is exactly right for them. While working for any nonprofit can help project managers contribute to a greater good, being in charge of a project that carries personal meaning or sentiment can provide PMs with the extra confidence and drive to help bring results to people that often need it the most.

A master’s from Brandeis can boost qualifications

Before project managers wade into the sea of nonprofit work, it’s likely they want to ensure they have an established set of professional skills and competencies. The realm of nonprofit work will require different strategies and techniques from project managers, and having a knowledge base to work from will help PMs orient their styles to the needs of the nonprofit. Contact an admissions officer today at Brandeis University to learn more about our online Master of Science in Project and Program Management and research our program’s fit for your ambitions.


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