The case of the missing (project) manager...

detectiveIt was a dark and stormy night. My face was bathed in the blue glow from the laptop's screen.  I sat staring at an email. "We won't have anyone to take on the project manager role for the upcoming major technology project at our organization.  Do you think that could be a problem?"  

I sat back, cracked my knuckles, and began to craft a reply.

"The challenge of working with nonprofits and technology is the faith that somehow "the technology will save us."   I think the hope is that by hiring a consultant or firm to run and manage a project (donor database, file storage system, etc), the nonprofit won't take up valuable staff time, the consultant will work their technical voodoo, and come back with a system that is perfectly configured, easy to use, and ready to be used by all staff with a bit of training.  This, in my opinion, is false hope.

One of the keys to a successful nonprofit technology project is staff ownership of the project.  This doesn't necessarily require that a staff person spend 100% of their time on the project (after all, that's one of the reasons you're hiring a firm, presumably), but it does require that there is someone on staff who fully owns the results of the project, is the main point of contact with the consultant, and is capable of making decisions regarding the project, or communicating with internal staff to get decisions made, and then clearly communicating those decisions.  Ultimately, staff time is always required for any successful nonprofit technology project, and ownership is a big part of that.

In a nutshell, I'd say that yes, it is problematic that no one within the organization is able to take on that role."

Exhausted, I hit send, and closed the laptop's lid, hoping that I'd prevented the disappearance of yet another nonprofit technology project manager...

 (Apologies to Elmore Leonard, and fans of real hard-boiled detective stories.)


Strategic and Operational ownership

 Nicely written, Marc.  Thank you.

In our experience working with mostly nonprofit capacity builders to implement online resource libraries, when we run into problems it is inevitably a result of any combination of the following 4 elements:

1. accountability:  What by when

2. ownership: Who

3. strategic: why it matters to the organization to

4. operational: how will we get it done (right people who will make it a priority)

We encourage clients to think about each about how they will accomplish each of these elements before they embark on any new initiative - - but, especially, the nonprofit knowledge sharing that we enable.  The truth is, all technology-enabled service providers can make important work *easier*, but none of us can succeed without appropriate attention/resources.

For some organizations, taking care of the 4 elements can happen very quickly.  For others, years can go by with projects limping along.  

While I'm all for quick iterations of try-learn-recalibrate-try again,   in many cases, the smartest decision is to recognize when an organization is (or isn't) ready.



Scott, thanks for  commenting. I like your 4 elements, it's a great way of framing the keys to success for any initiative, not just technology.  I hope that IdeaEncore is enabling organizations to be succesful in all of the dimensions you've described.


I can confirm to a 10000 % your experience! I am working with a lot of non-profits in the cultural sector and I can observe the same fatal faith in the MAGIC of technical solutions! It's excruciating. 


Yes, the "magic of technology" often seems to disappear all too quickly... 

Absolutely the right response

Based on more than 20 years helping organisations deliver projects successfully in all sectors, I totally agree with your observations.  Regularly published data shows senior management accountabiliy for the success of the project objects is fundamentally essential.

Accountability.  There's another blogpost!



Thanks for comment and the post suggestion, John! 

Every project needs a manager!

I'm so glad you wrote this, Marc. I work for a technology firm where we handle new websites and online course development for nonprofits and government agencies, and one of the first questions I ask is, "How will you manage the project when we're done?" Many times, I hear either A) silence or B) "a volunteer."

If an organization is serious about having an online resource for their audience members, they need to be truly committed. That can't happen if they don't have someone on staff who's in charge. Not just someone to make occasional updates, but someone who can represent the website for the whole organization and work with the marketing and communications team on creating a unified presence. (No marketing team either? Don't get me started ...)

I've written about putting together a team for web projects, including this article on finding the right manager for a web project, and it touches on many of the same items as your article:

Thank you!

Monique, thanks for the comment and for the link to your post.  I hope that any organizations out there thinking about  a new website project take a look at Monique's article!

If you have to ask the question...

... perhaps you shouldn't be taking on a technology project in the first place.

Seriously, how is it that nonprofits have such a deficit of project management skills, when the vast majority of nonprofit work is, in fact, project management of one type or another?

Project management skills in NGOs

 Jon,  I think you raise a really important issue. In a way, projects are the product of a non-profit/NGO. So why are there so many problems? I think there are many causes. I feel that one important reason is that in many cases, doing good is seen as enough. No time to plan, we are doing important work that can't wait... PM has also been seen as coming from the private sector and many organisations treat this with suspicion. An even bigger issue is that "you don't know what you don't know". If people haven't Ben exposed to good pm, they won't know what it is. At the same time, pm certification - whether PMI or PRINCE 2 is very expensive - again putting people off.


Please have a look at PMDPro. It is a PM certification for NGOs. The initials stand for Project Management for Development Professionals. It is a certification that is contextualised to international development. You can see it at The Guide is free and is available in Spanish, French, Portuguese and English. The is a free online practice exam and certification costs between $120 and $20 (for local NGO staff in the developing world).


About 1200 people have done the certification since it went live 18 months ago

Project Management Certification

John, thanks for the link to PMDPro.  I also know another NGO umbrella organization called InsideNGO which offers Project Management training and certification. Check it out at

...and never mind

in fact, they're offering a PMDPro class!  Excellent! 

Tech = scary

Jon, it's a great question.  I think one of the problems is the fear of the unknown, and let's be honest, there are a lot of techies that don't go to great lengths to make themselves understood by the "little people."   So that combo of fear + jargon/lack of communication = cr@ppy projects.