{dsmHack Recap} Managing the Chaos: Project Management for Nonprofits

When you work at a nonprofit, you’ve got a lot going on. From fundraising to managing volunteers to filing legal documents — the list might seem endless. One of the things we’ve heard from nonprofit participants during our past hacks is that they’re curious about how our volunteer teams work so effectively together and about their project management styles. So, for our latest workshop, we took some of those concepts and broke them down.

What are your priorities?

Every project has it’s essential elements — its priorities. Think of it like baking a cake. The components of a cake are the cake itself, the frosting, and the sprinkles (or other decorations). If you don’t have the cake base, you don’t have anything to frost. And if you don’t have frosting, sprinkles won’t stick. Now, you can have a cake itself, a cake with frosting, or all three, but if you show up to a birthday party with a plates of sprinkles … it’s not a party. You can serve a plain cake for dessert, but you can’t serve sprinkles.

Projects can be thought of in the same way. In a project, you have three categories:

  1. The essentials: what, if it didn’t get accomplished, would derail the entire project? This is the cake. This should be your core goal, and should be something that everyone understands you’re working toward.
  2. The presentation: what makes the project presentable? What is not necessarily core to delivering a project, but makes it good, enjoyable, and worth thinking about? That’s your frosting.
  3. The extras: what would be nice to have, if there’s time? What are extra flourishes that would really “wow”? Those are your sprinkles.

How do I implement these concepts?

One way to develop workflow and priorities is by creating a story map. What’s a story map? It’s a pictorial way to outline everything you need to get done.


Image source

These are all the things that need to happen to complete a project — any kind of project! Think about it this way: say you’re planning an event. Think of all the tasks you’ll need to do to make that event happen.

Start with your individual tasks

  1. First, you’ll develop your categories of tasks – these are your main stories. These could be things like logistics, marketing, and guests.
  2. Next, break those categories down into detailed stories, or steps. This is a physical, visual practice. Literally write each of the steps on a sticky note and stick all of them on a wall. These detailed stories (steps) might look like “research caterers,” “write press release,” “pick a DJ,” “develop guest list,” or “develop volunteer tasks,” etc. Get as detailed and creative as you want.
  3. Then, set out the sticky notes (steps) in a way that prioritizes them. What has to be accomplished before other things can be accomplished? What must be completed before you can move on? For example – you must make a guest list before you can mail invitations. At the end of the day, what are the most essential tasks to complete to have an event? What’s your cake? What’s your sprinkles?

Build your board

You might have 20 stickies, or you might have 100. Regardless, if you walk away from them now, the whole system falls apart. To effectively execute these tasks, you’re going to build your board. This is done in a visual way through the use of different columns: “To-do”, “Doing” and “Done”.

Each tasks starts in “To-do,” but as you begin to work on the task each sticky represents, move the sticky into the appropriate column. This way, you and your team know what’s happening and what’s been accomplished. It’s okay to break tasks down into smaller tasks to keep things moving. We all like to see things get ticked off a to-do list!

Build your board 2.0: Once you’re used to the process, don’t be afraid of creating new columns to help organize your work. Does a lot of your work need to be reviewed by a supervisor, or board of directors? Give them their own column – that way you know what you’re under control of (“Doing”) and what you can’t control.

Time management

It might be hard to prioritize your steps. Usually, to accomplish a project, you have a lot of different tasks in varying states of completion. Often, you have very complex tasks and then you have easier, time-dependent tasks. The complex task might take three weeks, while the time dependent might take one week. Which should you do first: the tasks that needs to be completed first, or the one that will take more time? The answer: In a workflow, start the complex task first and budget time later, before the deadline, for the time-dependent task.

Let’s go to work

There are a lot of online resources that can help non-profits start working in a task-centric model. Both Trello and Stories on Board were recommended in the workshop to accomplish these organizational methods in a digital format. But sometimes, pen and paper can’t be beat.

Review the slides for more information on our presentation. And, keep an eye on the dsmHack Facebook page for information on future workshops for nonprofits like this one!

Managing the Chaos: Project Management for Nonprofits from dsmHack