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Project management for charities: transforming your purpose into action

Angela joined Oaks in January 2023 as Senior Fundraising Manager. Prior to this, she spent 25 years in the charity sector as an exercise physiologist, programme manager and executive director, overseeing countless strategic projects focused on community and corporate partnerships, board and volunteer engagement, and facility operations. In this article, she reflects on some of her key takeaways when it comes to managing complex projects in the charity space.

Angela Jones, Senior Fundraising Manager

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, purpose is "the reason something is done or made or for which something exists". A purposeful organisation puts the reasons it was created at the heart of everything it does, from strategy to stakeholder relationships, communications and culture, and, yes, quality project management!

In the charity world, effective project management is the cornerstone of bringing your vision to life. By implementing key tactics, you can efficiently navigate the challenges of aligning purpose to strategic objectives, ensuring that your organisation's "why" is achieved on time, within budget, and with exceptional results. Remember that project management is dynamic, so it’s important to be open to continuous improvement and adaptability as you refine your skills.

Balancing your charity's priorities can seem daunting even to the most seasoned professionals. Staying organised and on top of projects is crucial for maximising often limited resources and realising outcomes that create the most significant impact. Juggling staff, volunteers, stakeholders, fundraising, budget, operations, and projects simultaneously can lead to overload. Remaining mindful of the agility needed to turn your vision into action will be integral to achieving your organisational goals and supporting beneficiaries.

Charities play an essential role in the UK economy, contributing £52.2bn in revenue across an estimated 167,000 organisations. Project work is a significant part of these contributions: it is estimated that project management in the charity sector contributes a total of £6.61bn to the UK economy each year, and a significant portion of charities' work is project-based (IBIS World Industry Report).

According to the Association of Project Management (APM), the charity sector attracts a well-educated workforce, with over 50% having degree level or higher qualifications. New hires within the charity sector also tend to have well-rounded skillsets, focusing on building their knowledge of the sector and learning specific project management techniques. Hiring experienced project managers can present a bigger challenge! However, it’s likely that as project management evolves, it will become an essential skill in the charity sector and much more embedded within organisations.

Charitable organisations vary greatly in size and scope, as do the size and number of projects. Projects range from smaller, specific projects (for instance, a fundraising event) to large digital transformational projects with long-term strategic objectives. Broadly, project work can be split between:

  • Internal projects dedicated to improving charities' ways of working, and;

  • Outward-facing projects focused on people and social issues charities help.

In recent years, the impact of the pandemic and cost of living challenges have meant managing rapid change, internally and externally, and delivering with tighter budgets.

Ultimately, as organisational leaders we are bound by our budget, making it even more important to value your team and the assets they bring to creating a detailed project plan. When you work in a team, you must consider the expectations, personal experience, knowledge, expertise, needs, and preferences of others, as well as your own. How can you achieve and maintain healthy, happy relationships, as well as perform better and have a meaningful impact?

These are a few of our tips for successful project management:

1) Before you start a project, align your goals.

  • Ensure you understand the team's overall objective, scope, and deliverables.

  • Identify your goals, such as learning a new skill, improving communication, or expanding your network.

  • Compare your goals with the team's goals and see how they align or conflict.

If they align, great, if they conflict, try to find a way to reconcile them or prioritise the team's goals over your own.

2) Communicate projects effectively.

Communicating your goals, expectations, and progress to your team members and stakeholders regularly and clearly would be best. You also need to listen to their feedback, concerns, and suggestions. Use agreed-upon and appropriate communication channels, tools, and formats, such as email, chat, video call, or report. Be respectful, constructive, and supportive in your communication.

  • Create a Detailed Project Plan: Develop a comprehensive project plan that outlines tasks, responsibilities, and timelines. Tools like Gantt charts can be helpful in visualising the project's workflow and dependencies.

· Be Mindful of Individual Capacity: Understanding that most team members and volunteers carry multiple responsibilities, being sensitive to communicating in a timely and productive way and being conscious of the mental health needs of the team to avoid burnout.

3) Collaborate and delegate.

Collaboration and delegation are two skills that can help you balance individual and group goals in a project to achieve a common goal, share ideas, and solve problems by assigning tasks or responsibilities to others based on their skills, availability, and interests. By collaborating and delegating, you can leverage the strengths and diversity of your team, reduce your workload, and focus on your own goals.

4) Manage your time, resources, and constraints for project success.

You must plan your schedule, set deadlines, and track your progress. You also need to allocate your resources, such as budget, equipment, or data, according to the needs and priorities of the project. Be honest, realistic, flexible, and adaptable in time and resource management. Avoid procrastination, distraction, and over commitment.

  • Set Realistic Timelines: Overestimating or underestimating deadlines can lead to stress and lower-quality work. Consider all the variables that might affect your timeline, including funding gaps, approval processes and unforeseen delays.

  • Allocate Resources Wisely: Ensure you have the right team members with the necessary skills for the project. Avoid overloading team members or underutilising their expertise.

5) Seek feedback and learning opportunities with inclusivity and curiosity.

Feedback and learning opportunities are valuable for balancing individual and group goals in a project. You need to seek feedback from your team members, stakeholders, and mentors on your performance, strengths, and areas for improvement. Opening the door for team members to explore learning opportunities, such as training, coaching, or mentoring, can improve project management processes. Be open-minded, curious, and willing to learn from feedback and learning opportunities.

As you build inclusive learning into your company culture, seek feedback from learners and be open to adapting as needed.

  • Manage Scope Creep: Scope creep refers to uncontrolled changes or additions to a project's scope. Keep a vigilant eye on scope changes, document them, and assess their impact on timelines and resources. Discuss any changes with stakeholders to ensure alignment.

  • Track Key Metrics: Define key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that will measure the success of your project. Regularly track and analyse these metrics to ensure your efforts yield the desired results.

  • Identify and Mitigate Risks: Anticipate potential risks early in the project and develop a risk mitigation plan. This proactive approach can save you time and resources in the long run, preventing unforeseen obstacles from derailing your project.

  • Learn from Feedback: Gather feedback from team members and stakeholders after completing a project. Honest feedback can provide valuable insights for improving your project management processes and the quality of your programmes.

Celebrate and appreciate!

Finally, remember to celebrate and appreciate the achievements and contributions of yourself and your team members. Celebrating and appreciating can help you balance individual and group goals in a project by boosting your morale, motivation, and recognition. You can celebrate and appreciate by acknowledging the project's results, challenges, and learnings, giving, and receiving praise and recognition, or rewarding yourself and your team with something fun or meaningful.

Looking for support with your charity’s next big project? The team at Oaks are here to help. Get in touch to learn how we can help you manage your project from end-to-end, ensuring it is delivered on time, to budget and with a successful outcome. Let’s work together.

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