So Many Projects, So Little Time

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Nonprofit organizations can easily identify an unlimited number of worthwhile projects, but there are many actions the nonprofit leader can take to protect against initiative overload.

The best results come from focus,
not from trying to ‘do it all.’

Focus, in this case, means that new projects and activities aren’t added to the portfolio without regard to priorities or available resources. This doesn’t necessarily mean your nonprofit has to say no when new needs or opportunities arise. Instead, you should use a disciplined process for deciding how new projects get added and have a clear understanding of when it becomes necessary to hit pause or delete on others.

What’s on the Plate and How Did it Get There?

Much of your nonprofit’s day-to-day focus is dictated by the urgent and important needs of its stakeholders. Add in strategic goals, program goals, business goals, plus regular operations, and it’s no wonder that the full scope feels overwhelming.

What is your process for deciding what gets on your nonprofit’s ‘plate?’ For example, you would never leave a strategic planning session agreeing to implement 100 different goals – even if each of them had merit on its own.

If you’ve ever used a Pros & Cons list to help make a decision, you’re familiar with the concept of scoring models. Using a scoring model might seem like a dry textbook exercise, but there is significant value for organizations of all sizes to regularly look at everything they are trying to accomplish side-by-side, at least conceptually, and compare apples to apples.

Possible measures for your scoring model could include:

  • Risk vs. reward
  • Resources needed
  • Reasons in support of the project
  • Return on investment

Your organization’s project portfolio contains both existing and future projects and is constantly evolving – as projects are completed, you are in a better position to make decisions about the next priority projects to begin.

Being Honest About Resource Allocation

One of the leading causes of project failure is under-estimating the resources needed for completion. In the nonprofit sector, where budgets are tight and team members wear many hats, we’re tempted to act as if we have unlimited hours in the week.

When making capacity decisions, there is a big difference
between feeling and knowing what is possible.

Quantifying (in total hours) how long projects and activities take allows us to make better decisions when planning workloads and upcoming initiatives. Time tracking can be cumbersome at first, but gathering real data on how our teams are actually spending their time provides valuable information.

For example, a painting contractor routinely collects data from previous jobs, such as the number of hours and amount of materials needed depending on the size of each home, and makes scheduling decisions for upcoming jobs accordingly.

Consider beginning with tracking (collective) time spent on regular activities such as attending meetings, preparing status reports, and service documentation and billing. Build from there to track total hours spent on bigger projects such as events and program development.

Over time, your organization will have a collection of useful data to not only help with future planning, but you will also be able to identify ways to create everyday efficiencies as well.

Knowing When to Hit Pause or Delete

Making more time for important activities involves deciding when to hit pause or delete on others.

When you look at the full scope of your organization’s work, do you see a large number of unfinished, or languishing, projects?

Redirecting resources (time and energy) away from current projects to address crises or take advantage of new opportunities is a regular part of nonprofit leadership. At the same time, having a process for adjusting the priority levels of existing projects (pause or delete) is necessary to avoid sabotaging the entire portfolio of projects and activities.

Having too many projects in limbo (not officially paused or removed) eventually affects team productivity and morale when everything is expected to be treated as having equal priority.

So Many Projects….. and a Plan for Success

Consider the full scope of your organization’s work.

  • To what extent do you use data to manage workloads and allocate resources?
  • Do you use a defined process for evaluating and adjusting the priority levels of new and existing projects and activities?

By focusing your attention and resources, you’ll protect your organization and its teams from initiative overload and still accomplish its urgent and important work.

This article was originally published in Nonprofit Colorado magazine in March of 2019.

Donna Catalano with Eastlake Solutions provides consulting services focused on helping nonprofit organizations maximize their results with streamlined operations, successful project management, and ongoing professional development for their teams and leadership.

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