What is “project management” and why do I need it?

Project management is about creating a “systematic, timely, and controlled process” for accomplishing tasks. Put simply, it is a way of staying organized and efficient, which is especially important for nonprofits operating with tiny or nonexistent budgets. You might be doing all right with your current systems, but we want you to grow!

They say knowledge is power, so let’s talk about the basics before delving into software and tools. There are essentially endless options to help you manage your time, staff, and resources and they all have different features. There are so many different tools and features that it can be overwhelming. In order to avoid distraction and frustration, it is also helpful to know what your needs are beforehand.

A project is a “temporary endeavor…to create a unique product, service or result.” It has a defined timeline, scope, and resources. A project can also bring together people that do not normally work together. In order to be successful, a project must be on-time, on-budget, and create deliverables (product, service, or result). The project life cycle includes:

  1. Work that must be accomplished
  2. Deliverables that must be generated
  3. People that are involved
  4. Controlling and approving phases

Five Phases of Project Management

In the mid-20th century, project management became a distinct profession and the Project Management Institute began to define it. There are five phases of project management:

1. Conception and Initiation

Is this project feasible?

This phase includes a project charter or Project Initiation Document (PID), which includes business needs, stakeholders, and the business case. It does not focus too much on technical requirements and can be created using free templates.

2. Planning 

What is the scope and budget of this project?

It can be useful to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) and CLEAR goals (Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, Refinable). Keeping these goals in mind, you will define the project’s needs, benefits, objectives, deliverables, and milestones. Milestones may be displayed using a Gantt chart – a horizontal bar chart that displays a timeline, status, and who is responsible for each task. You will also create a work breakdown schedule (WBS), a communication plan, and a risk management plan including time and cost estimates, customer reviews, budget issues, changing requirements, resources, etc.

3. Launch and Execution

Who is doing what and with what resources?

This is the phase where things really start happening! Deliverables are completed and teams are assigned to tasks. Those teams are further developed and assigned resources to execute plans. Work is tracked and at status meetings, plans are modified and updated as needed. This phase will focus on key performance indicators (KPIs), which can be categorized into inputs, process or activity measures, outputs, outcomes, and project measures, to help determine if the project is on track. It will also help maintain quality and forecast aspects of the project.

4. Performance and Monitoring

What is the progress and performance of this project?

This phase also uses KPIs to track project objectives, deliverables, effort and cost, and overall performance. This will also help determine if schedules need to be adjusted or resources reallocated.

5. Project Close

What happens when the project is completed?

Contractors hired for this project are released, teams are recognized for their contributions, and there will likely be a postmortem meeting to evaluate successes and failures. The project manager (PM) might also create a project punchlist to finish items that were not completed during the project. They will also complete final budget and project reports and collect all documents and deliverables in one place.

That can seem pretty overwhelming! If you need a bit more guidance, there are free project management courses through Philanthropy University and Nonprofit Ready.

What Are Project Management Tools and Why Do I Need Them?

There is an endless variety of modern technology to help us cope with a steady flow of work. Project management tools are often software with built-in systems to help you track your progress and resources. However, the sheer number of options can cause decision paralysis. Now that you know a bit more about what project management entails, you can figure out where your organization needs the most help. I find if you start by looking at every single option then you become overwhelmed by all the shiny features and buzzwords instead of finding something that will actually work for you and your team. Some of the main features of project management tools are:

  1. Planning and scheduling
  2. Collaboration
  3. Documentation
  4. Evaluation

Examples of Free Project Management Tools

There are many project management tools claiming to be free, but that is usually only for a short trial period. There are a few actually free tools out there, a few that are very affordable, and some that are free or steeply discounted specifically for nonprofits. If your organization is already using a tool that you love, then double-check and make sure that they do not offer a free or discounted version before looking for another. If they do not already offer discounts for nonprofits, there is no harm in reaching out to negotiate one.

It would be so great if there was just one tool that did it all. Nobody is perfect, but these tools come pretty close!

1. Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) — the most underrated and best all-around

Eligible nonprofits can get the Google Workspace basic plan entirely for free or upgraded versions for either $4 or $8 per user per month (a third of the typical prices). The free plan accommodates up to 3,000 users and 30 GB of storage for each user. Most of the free plans that other tools offer support closer to 10-20 users. Google is constantly innovating, meaning new apps, add-ons, and developments become increasingly available for almost endless functionality. No need to give up specialized functions or worry about your apps being incompatible. They are all accessed by one account login, and communicate seamlessly with one another, so you don’t have to spend hours and hours changing or reformatting data.

It is also completely cloud-based, saving regularly so that you never lose your work progress. Google apps like Mail, Calendar, and Ads you may already be using are available on all operating systems and are user-friendly with plenty of free tutorials, so almost anyone can easily learn how to use them. Word processing in Docs, live chats in Hangout, and virtual meetings that can be recorded in Meet, and others are also collaborative in nature, allowing teams to edit a document simultaneously, add and assign comments, and review previous edits. If you or your team need assistance in setting up Google Workspace, there is pro bono help available and Google has created a quick start guide for nonprofits as well as some general tips.

2. Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is a classic project management tool that many people are already familiar with and already have access to. Templates and tutorials are also easily available for free. It is flexible and customizable but can have a steep learning curve. While Excel is not free, your organization may already have access to it and Microsoft does offer a 10% discount on its products for nonprofits.

3. Microsoft Project

While Excel has long been used for project management, it can be time-consuming. Microsoft Project will integrate with all your other Microsoft products, but will be focused specifically on project management. It is large, powerful, and widely used with task assignments, interactive dashboards, time estimates, and automated workflows.

4. Asana

Asana has a customizable dashboard featuring at-a-glance project tracking, task assignments, due dates, priority levels, and documents. Asana integrates well with other apps and gives you the ability to invite guests like vendors or contractors to your team. This popular tool is free for up to 15 users and also has a 50% discount for nonprofits.

5. Freedcamp

Freedcamp is an “entirely free way to collaborate more efficiently” with a huge list of possible features and versatile viewing options. Their core features (tasks, files, milestones, passwords, calendar, discussions, and time) will always be free with unlimited projects, tasks, storage, and users. Their paid plans offer 14-day trials and are extremely affordable for nonprofits at $0.49 per user per month, $3.49 per user per month, or $7.49 per user per month.

6. Bitrix24

Bitrix24 is known for its social media-like communication with a real-time activity feed. It is completely free for unlimited users, but you will need to pay for storage. Nonprofits do receive a 15% discount on storage! Like other software, it includes workflows, email integration, workload management, Gantt charts and Kanban boards, but it is also a tool for volunteer, HR, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Other features include a visual company structure, the ability to store and view files without downloading them, and a calendar view of all employees. Additionally, there is a mobile app and the 12-user limit on the free plan has been removed due to COVID-19.

7. ClickUp

ClickUp also allows you to plan, track, and collaborate on projects all in one place. It features a multitask bar, customizable interfaces (including mind maps) and workflows, integrations, real-time chats, customizable dashboards, time tracking, and keyboard shortcuts to keep you efficient. ClickUp also has a large list of integrations and will allow you to import your work from other apps and software, making it even easier to switch.

If you would like to see deals or discounts you can get using your nonprofit status on paid project management software or countless other apps and services, check out our Giant List of Nonprofit Discounts!

By Rebecca Law