Social Sector Project Management: Three Pitfalls To Avoid
Your social sector project was in response to a clear and concise plan. Executed flawlessly. Stayed on track. Came in under budget. Donors queued up early to support the cause and fundraising goals were easily surpassed. At the dedication event, those fortunate to have been involved in the venture marveled at the unifying experience had by all. You take a bow. We applaud you!
Then you snap out of it.
That social sector project exists only in your dreams. Perhaps that's the issue to address. People initially drawn to service and sacrifice in this field possess high voltage imaginations, along with equally high hopes that anything is possible. A bit naive. Yet so, so true. Even with best intentions and best-laid plans, the unimaginable may actually happen. And then you'll find yourself in the middle of a complicated social sector mess. Don't be caught off guard. You can avoid the pitfalls.
The Ambiguous Start
Pitfall: Everyone signs on to the initiative, intoxicated with aspirations of "build it and they will come." Social sector esprit de corps is palpable. All agree that, going forward, everyone owns the project. We do or die. Then, the next day, the real work commences. Complex layers of project details, decisions and deadlines begin landing on top of the workload of the already overworked social sector team. Who exactly has time to meet with architects for the umpteenth time? Much less the contractors, engineers, local inspectors, manufacturers. Strain surfaces. Stress mounts. Staff is struggling and in strife. All because of a serious ambiguous start.
How To Avoid: Everyone owns the project? Social sector people prefer consensus building. Uphold the communal. Value the collective. But who actually owns the project? Without designated doers, no one owns the project. And it doesn't get done. A social sector project needs a project manager. So designate and deputize one. A qualified chief duly authorized and accountable to mobilize the troops, make decisions and move the project along and to completion. Beware though. Worse than not having one social sector project manager is actually having more than one. Each assuming they are in charge. You do this at your own peril. Keep reading.
The Bane of Mission Creep
Pitfall: The campaign for the social sector project was officially launched a year ago. Fundraising has begun in earnest. But a brainstorming cabal continues to meet behind closed doors. They relish in digressing. As a result, an element of the project is embellished, ever so slightly. Then, in no time flat, the evolving idea eclipses the original intent of the venture. It creeps into everyone's consideration, morphs out of control and, at this exaggerated stage, lunges the entire project off its tracks. At a more appropriate time---the project's exploratory or feasibility phase---digression is the bounden duty of think tanks and strategic planners. But left unchecked and unbridled after the project has left the station, it becomes the bane of the agency.
How To Avoid: To stay on course, keep reminding yourselves what the project was, is, and will be about. At every team meeting, recite the original case statement out loud and in unison. Your case is your creed. Simultaneously, rein in the cabal and the digression that's cannibalizing everyone's concentration and the project's momentum. Unless, of course, everyone agrees that the original case is now a moot issue. If that's indeed the case, then put the brakes on the venture. Notify donors who have lent early support. Be ready to explain the demise of case # 1 and the rise of case # 2. Be prepared to renegotiate or return grant funding. For the reputation of your social sector organization, get your act together before you reboot the project.
The Crisis of Human Capital
Pitfall: The sizzle of your social sector project, that multi-million dollar facility envisioned in a moment of inspiration to house a breakthrough initiative, has now lost its oxygen. All due to a turn of unforeseen events. The agency's Executive Director suddenly resigns because of an illness. The brains driving the initiative begin taking jobs at other nonprofits. Better pay, better benefits and better days are luring others to greener pastures down the street. The organization is thrown into a crisis mode. Tyranny of the urgent takes over. A malaise hangs over the agency. The social sector project is stopped dead in its tracks.
How To Avoid: The multi-million dollar facility may be the sizzle, but the existential substance of your social sector project is people. Those who lead, direct, manage, maintain, expedite, and do the work of mission. Your organization's most valuable assets. That's why you need to be prepared. In advance of a crisis of human capital. Succession, contingency and emergency planning should be integrated into the structuring of every social sector project. If faced with a personnel vacuum and if not promoting or replacing from within, you'll have a go-to strategy for talent reacquisition and for rebuilding the people infrastructure of your organization.
Three pitfalls avoided. More ahead. Take a break and catch your breath. Now take a bow. Is that a standing ovation?