Successful project management for associations & NGOs: The 4 most common problems - and their solutions

There are many myths surrounding the topic of "project management". It actually sounds quite simple: It is about achieving a previously defined goal. If possible, on a fixed date, within the calculated budget - and with intact nerves.

The reality often looks different.

From the experience of more than 1,000 organizational analyses, we know that most mistakes are made during project planning and project start.

Therefore, we show here the four most common problems - and their solutions:

  1. Problem: Target groups not precisely defined
  2. Problem: imprecise project goals
  3. Problem: missing or inadequate success indicators
  4. Problem: no or insufficient monitoring & evaluation

Supplemented by a good project structure, a clean project plan and last but not least a not too tightly calculated resource planning, you have the most important factors for more successful projects in view.

Define target groups: Who do you actually want to reach?

A social project can only be successful if it reaches its target groups. Sounds trivial, but in practice, target group analysis is rarely as differentiated as it should be. Often the target groups are defined too imprecisely: sometimes they are too large ("target group: all"), sometimes too small, sometimes not selective enough ("children and young people from 3-18 years").

By definition, target groups are individuals or groups that often live within a geographically defined area, i.e. in city districts, counties, etc.

When planning goals, milestones and measures, it is important to describe the target groups of the project as precisely as possible. It is crucial that the target groups are not so comprehensive that it is difficult to plan a project around them - but at the same time they must not be so narrowly defined that the definition hardly applies to anyone.

Many associations and nonprofits have more than one target group or very different and diverse target groups - for example, an association that sensitises consumers to environmental issues and at the same time carries out climate policy lobbying. Such constellations require special care, because two target groups also double the probability that the project will start to falter at the project planning stage.

The following questions will help you describe the target group:

  • Who are the members of the target group? How old are they?
  • From which catchment area do they come (city district, county)?
  • What is their social situation, their family and educational status? Are there any special challenges (poverty, low education, etc.)
  • What is the financial situation of the target group? What problems does it face? Where are the potentials of the target group as a whole and of individual sub-target groups?

Descriptions of the situation and needs in project plans often emphasise the problems and deficits of the target groups. This is obvious because the aim is to alleviate need. However, it is just as important to consider the positive aspects.

So ask:

  • What development opportunities and potentials does the target group have?
  • What strengths, talents and resources does it bring with it?
  • What wishes and hopes does the target group have?

In the course of project planning as well as during the course of the project, it is advisable to regularly review and adjust the target group definition. Initial assumptions about target groups can prove to be incorrect in the course of the project. And in projects with long durations it is even conceivable that the target groups may change more than just in nuances.

Define goals: What do you want to achieve?

In relation to social projects, goals are also called impact goals, because the calculation usually reads: goal = intended impact. In many cases, "goal" and "impact goal" are therefore used synonymously.

There are two types of impact targets in the work of associations:

  • Impact objectives at the level of the target groups - starting from the question: What do you want to achieve with your clientele in concrete terms?
  • Impact objectives at the level of society - based on the question: To what extent do the intended effects on the target groups also lead to changes in society as a whole?

Impact objectives form the foundation for effective project management in associations and NGOs. They alone determine which efforts are necessary and where resources are sensibly used. In short: No project without an (impact) goal! Because the best intentions are useless if they do not serve any concrete goal.

Impact goals help ...

  • gain orientation: If the goals are formulated in such a way that everyone knows what they have to do, it is easier to keep the project on track.
  • Planning monitoring & evaluation: Without impact goals, it is not clear what you should determine, when, with what method and with whom.
  • motivate employees: Those who know the goals and identify with them will stay in good spirits even if the project misses milestones.
  • to prove the quality of your work: Sponsors are always interested in controlling and in whether the project plan and reality match - in other words, whether the money is well invested.
  • Fundraising: Precisely formulated impact goals that arouse enthusiasm make it easier to acquire potential sponsors.

In reality, however, many associations and NGOs work with fuzzy and diffuse objectives. Not so much on purpose, but because the goals often seem so obvious and obvious that a further and often strenuous goal-finding process is not necessary ("We are already doing good, and it is clear that we want to eliminate child poverty!)

At some point, however, it turns out that the goals are not as clear and precise as hoped - and the goal-finding process starts all over again. In the worst case, measures have already been planned and resources have been allocated to achieve goals that do not correspond to your agenda.

In this respect, every minute you invest in the development of impact targets will pay off afterwards!

Effective project management starts with a structured project plan, which lists the goals as well as individual milestones, stages and measures that will help you to achieve the goal.

In order to define impact goals, you need to know who you want to change what:

  • Which target groups do you want to reach?
  • What exactly should the project change in the target group? And how does this relate to individual measures, offers etc.?
  • To which social goals should the project contribute?

By the way: The mere implementation of an activity cannot be an impact goal. Organising a workshop or reaching a certain number of participants is at best a milestone, an "output". The workshop is not an impact objective, precisely because it does not bring about any change in the target group.

One goal of a workshop could be that a certain number of participants have gained new knowledge after participating. However, this goal ("target group acquires new knowledge") requires a completely different project planning and resource planning than pure event organisation ("workshop with so many participants takes place").

Develop and measure success indicators

Effective project management also means that you continuously gather information about whether the project is on track and whether its set milestones or goals are still achievable. Such clues are called: indicators.

Indicators can be used to determine whether a certain situation or event has occurred. Indicators show what progress a project is making, whether it is proceeding as planned and whether it is successful.

Ideally, the project plan should include one or more indicators for each milestone to show that the goal has been achieved.

However, indicators are not only important for the achievement of objectives. You also need indicators to set up a solid monitoring system. And after project completion, indicators form the basis for evaluation, i.e. to analyse and assess what has been achieved.

Because they are so important, indicators should already be considered during project planning:

  • Which impact goals do you want and can realistically be monitored regularly?
  • Does the indicator require a specific method, which you should consider or take into account during the planning phase?
  • How do you determine the progress and finally the impact or achievement of the project?

You should bear in mind that there are two types of indicators: direct and indirect indicators.

  • Direct indicators can mainly be formulated for easily countable facts such as outputs and easily measurable effects. Direct indicators often result directly from the impact objectives. Assuming that an impact objective is that unemployed people find a job through participation in your project, the indicator would be "number of unemployed people who found a job after participation".

    Of course, indicators are not always as easy to determine as in this example. In such cases you can use indirect indicators.
  • Indirect indicators only indirectly point to the facts to be observed. They are used when it is not possible to collect data, or only at an unreasonably high cost. Indirect indicators are recommended whenever you want to identify qualitative changes: changed living conditions of the target groups, changed attitudes, changed behaviour.

This leads directly to the next challenge in project management: How can you tell whether an unemployed person is more confident in the job market as a result of training with you? - By the fact that he reads more job advertisements? Application documents now also sent by e-mail? Also checking up on potential employers by phone? - In such cases several indicators are needed, preferably one for each level of impact.

Planning monitoring & evaluation correctly

For the evaluation of a project you should consider three to ten percent of the budget in the project and resource plan.

The largest cost item in an evaluation is personnel costs, plus printing costs for the evaluation report, office and travel expenses.

In 90 percent of all projects, little or no funds are earmarked for monitoring and evaluation. Then, of course, it becomes difficult to measure the impact.

If the project is large and the budget small, it may make sense to monitor or evaluate a small but relevant part of the project well, rather than collecting data for the entire project and having to accept qualitative compromises.

With these questions you can keep effort and costs manageable:

  • Is the information to be collected really (really!) necessary?
  • Is the data perhaps already available elsewhere?
  • Is the number of respondents - the sample size - appropriate or not perhaps too large?
  • Are there cheaper survey instruments that can be used?
  • Which tasks should be solved with the help of an external evaluator and which can be done in-house?

Whether you do the evaluation yourself or outsource it depends on the competencies in the association, the project budget, and the interest in the findings.

The advantage of an evaluation by the association itself is that it is relatively inexpensive.

In addition, the main purpose of evaluation is to learn from the findings - and associations can only pass this on to the outside world to a certain extent. A further advantage is that employees can access relevant information more quickly and have considerably more expertise about the project to be evaluated (goals, milestones, etc.).

However, this expertise can become problematic if it degenerates into company blindness or if personal relationships lead to bias. The main sticking point, however, is that the project participants often lack the competence to carry out a qualified evaluation.

An external evaluator, on the other hand, possesses precisely these technical and methodological competencies. This not only has a positive effect on the overall quality of the evaluation, but often leads to a more structured implementation of the project.

In addition, an external evaluator has the degree of independence required to guarantee an objective, non-partisan view from outside. And an external expert often enjoys a higher level of acceptance.

The disadvantage is the higher costs that an external evaluation incurs. In addition, the evaluator may not have access to all relevant information in the association or may not be able to adequately classify and assess milestones and goals. Thus, the entire evaluation would not do justice to the project.

A solution to this dilemma could be a hybrid of internal and external evaluation. Project staff work hand in hand with an external consultant who brings expertise and an outside perspective.

In this way, the employees build up competencies and the external evaluator guarantees a neutral view. This is how the advantages of both approaches come together. The important thing is that the responsibilities are clarified - and that the item appears in the resource planning.

Essential for the success of the evaluation is one's own attitude, which is geared towards gaining knowledge. Keep in mind that a project analysis is less about fulfilling an annoying reporting obligation, but rather about critically examining the project from different angles and learning from mistakes!

What else you can expect

  • Needs and environment analysis: for effective project management, you need to have a precise knowledge of the needs of the target groups. For the project structure and the project plan you should research who is already working in the project environment and with which measures and offers you could fill existing gaps.
  • Impact measurement: The impact achieved with the target groups can be planned, determined and measured. Not to the point, but in such a way that your association can determine how well it "works".
  • Create impact logic: What is the logic behind the project? An impact logic helps to set up the project structure, project plan and resource plan in such a way that you achieve the greatest possible impact with the available resources.
  • Monitoring & data collection: There are many methods to collect data. Some are expensive, some are complex, and some are both together. But don't worry: there are also comparatively inexpensive options that clubs can use on their own.
  • Communication: Associations do well to communicate transparently with donors, cooperation partners and the public. This inspires trust - and also promotes internal quality management, because deviations from the plan become visible more quickly.

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