How can we promote better Project Management within the Charity Sector?

How can we promote better Project Management within the Charity Sector? Written by Nine Feet Tall Principal Consultants, Friederike Vetter and Laura van den Bosch.

Research from 2019 estimates that project management in the charity sector is valued at £6.61bn per year. The professionalisation of project management within the sector is still emerging, with larger organisations being ahead of the curve. As a result of this, Nine Feet Tall continues to work with many organisation every year across the Charity and Not-For-Profit Sector. Sharing their insights on this experience are Nine Feet Tall Principal Consultants Rike Vetter and Laura van den Bosch, who say:

“Less can mean more. Fewer projects per person; fewer projects at a time; and fewer rules to clarify the governance picture will all support stronger project oversight and improved project outcomes. Win win!”


Let’s dig into this further…

Fewer projects per person 

The stakes are often high for project governance in the charity sector. Charities support emotive causes and fight important issues. The operating environment is highly regulated to safeguard public and charity money – think donor reporting rules in international development, or regulations set by the charity commission. The consequences of failure to comply are severe. We have all seen the horror stories of mismanaged public or charity funds splashed across the front pages of the newspaper.  

This high-stakes environment can mean that project oversight and control is assigned to senior members of the executive team, with the aim of sending a strong signal that the organisation is taking the issue seriously.  

This can, however, create the unintended consequence that responsibility for project oversight sits with people who already have a lot of plates spinning. Alongside a prevailing sense that project management can be seen as getting in the way of the ‘real work’ of fighting injustice or poverty, this can lead to project oversight functions being sidelined. APM comments on recent research into this:

“project management was…seen as a ‘side-of-desk’ activity and a perception remained that project management holds the risk of  ‘stifling creativity with bureaucracy’” 

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Delegating  project control to project specialists who report into the executive team can go a long way to alleviating this. These team members will be enthusiastic advocates of project management, and will be closer to the day-to-day challenges. Executives can then be freer to engage in management at the portfolio level, which ties in neatly to our next lesson.  

A note of warning here: delegating the doing does not mean delegating accountability. Executives are still on the hook for ensuring projects adhere to rules and regulations. Executives can ensure that good governance remains top of the agenda by emphasising the direct reporting line and visibly advocating for good practice.  

Fewer projects at a time 

Charities are not alone in struggling with this, but it’s worth emphasising for organisations that work in cash-strapped conditions: prioritisation is vital to success. In a sector where many problems need urgent solutions and ambition to make progress is high, projects can multiply to create an overwhelming set of plans to manage. Spending time to understand which projects are most closely related to organisational strategic objectives will increase the chance of success. It will also improve project management as the limited resources available for it will be spread less thin.  

A practice we have noticed and would caution against is that of ‘salami slicing’. This means, rather than reducing the overall number of projects, it can be tempting to make all existing projects slightly smaller to enable continued progress against a wide range of issue areas. A word of warning: this does not reduce the burden of project management in Charity, and will therefore not work to improve project governance and related success measures. You have been warned! 

Fewer and simpler rules 

And finally, we have seen an opportunity to reduce the number and scope of project oversight mechanisms and tools. Because of the high-risk conditions, we have noticed an inclination to expand the scope of project management tools to try to cater to all eventualities. Unfortunately, this can achieve the opposite effect to what was intended, over-complicating the project governance arrangements and turning-off already jaded, fatigued, and busy practitioners from engaging project management processes. If there’s one thing we know charity and not-for-profit teams are extremely capable in doing, it’s adapting and improvising in challenging situations! Your project management set-up is no different.  

Get clear on a few simple parameters you want to monitor, and include the delivery team in the conversation. Engaging those who are delivering the work in the set-up of the management arrangements will create buy-in and mean tools are more likely to stick.  

So what can you do right now? 

Fewer projects per person: Consider who is currently responsible for project oversight within your organisation. Are they the right fit? Do they have the necessary inclination, skills, and time to do this well? How else could it be arranged? 

Fewer projects at a time: Think about one or two projects you want to put on the back burner for now. Use the important / urgent matrix if helpful to make the selection and review alongside a copy of your strategy to help focus.  

Fewer and simpler rules: Think of the most-used and least-used project management tools within your Charity. How can they be made simpler and more user-friendly? Involve some delivery leads in the conversation and get their feedback.  

Change won’t happen overnight, but by taking one step at a time towards a simpler project management framework, the rewards will accrue over the months and years ahead.  

What are your thoughts? Does this resonate with your experience of working with clients in this sector? Get in touch with Laura or Rike to continue the conversation, or explore our case studies on the topic here.  

APM quote link to report


Frequently Asked Questions

Why is project management crucial in the charity sector?

Project management ensures efficient use of resources, adherence to regulations, and successful execution of initiatives aimed at addressing critical social issues.

How can charities improve project oversight without overburdening staff?

Delegate project control to dedicated specialists who can focus on day-to-day challenges, allowing executives to engage at a portfolio level while emphasising accountability.

What steps can charities take to simplify project management processes?

Charities can prioritise projects aligned with strategic objectives, reduce project numbers to avoid spreading resources thin, and streamline governance mechanisms with input from delivery teams for better engagement and effectiveness.

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