Delivering third sector projects demands tenacity, agility and, increasingly, professionalised project management skills, finds Conrad Heine


Life‑saving or life‑changing third sector projects are, as Peter Marlow, co‑chair of PM4NGOs, puts it, part of a sector that is “really big”. In 2019 alone, the UK government spent £14bn of public money on foreign aid. “Projects in uncontrolled environments”, as Marlow calls them,
are needed on a huge scale – a need likely only to grow in the face of, for example, the huge numbers of refugees displaced by ongoing conflicts or the hardships likely to emerge on
the back of climate change and the Covid‑19 pandemic.

Project managers in the sector face the same challenges as elsewhere. But the contexts – including conflict zones, rapid onset emergencies, food relief distribution and refugee camps – differ wildly. Says John Cropper of Pyramid Learning, which develops sectoral
norms, professional certifications and learning products: “NGOs work in difficult situations that can change very quickly.” The focus is also very different – about outcomes, often life‑changing,
rather than output.

Cropper is vivid on the challenges project managers in the sector can face. “If you are doing first‑stage emergency response in a big natural disaster, during the first couple of days, if anybody says they have a longer planning timeframe than 24 hours, theyare lying. That doesn’t mean you can’t do longer‑term planning in parallel, but if you are on the ground somewhere like that, the one thing you can be sure of is that any information you have got is incomplete, possibly wrong and that everything is going to change over the next 24 hours.”

The sector’s employment model poses another challenge. Development projects call for particular technical skills, with recruitment of specialists on that basis. Says Marlow: “They are then required to manage projects and lead teams. As a consequence the quality of project management can be variable. Wheels are constantly being reinvented. There is no culture of improvement to embed good practice. Inevitably, many projects under‑deliver despite best intentions.” 

Oliver Filler of Mercy Corps points out the gap: “The development and humanitarian sectors have always been primarily project delivery sectors, but until the last decade project management was never really acknowledged by the sector as a professional function in its own right.”


Learning materials

But things are evolving. Filler refers to his own experience working in north‑eastern Kenya for Save the Children in 2011. “I was a member of response personnel for rapid onset acute emergencies. A team of us would be deployed to countries as surge capacity. We were dealing with very difficult contexts and situations. It was really the first time when, institutionally, across the board and across agencies, beneficiary accountability was seen as an incredibly important thing to invest in. The idea that we should be asking our programme participants for feedback, this aligned with the concept of communication as aid.” But with actual access to communication tools difficult, work with the Vodafone Foundation on roving mobile networks was launched. “That has now evolved into programmes like Mercy Corps’ partnership with NASA, using satellites to predict fluctuations in food security. It was also the beginning of digital data collection,” says Filler. In fact, since 2007, a gradual change has been underway, with recognition of the need for professionalisation of project management in the sector. Integral to the change was the initiative, that year, by a group of large NGOs who came together to drive the development of tools and learning materials for the sector. Consequently, in 2010, the first edition of the Project Management for Development Professionals Guide (since rebranded Project DPro) the was launched.
At the same time, PM4NGOs (an APM corporate partner) was launched to own the certification, with APMG administrating the exams. Says Marlow: “Our buzzphrase is: it is owned by the sector, for the sector.”

Getting learning to the people in the field

With its translation into six languages, free online learning tools, resources designed for mobile use and ongoing continued professional development features, the guide’s mantra is to be
“appropriate, affordable, accessible and actionable”, says Cropper, who was involved in its initial development. “It is a way to get learning to the people who need it most – the field staff with no access to head office. If you don’t train them, you don’t have a strong base.” Thus, there is a notable lack of terminology – of sprints, scrums and the like. “You try explaining what a scrum master is to someone who has English as a third language.”

Over its life, the guide has reached some 34,000 development workers in over 170 countries and 1,300 organisations. Marlow is ambitious, aiming for it to reach “hundreds of thousands more, many working for small local organisations”. Regular adaptations keep it relevant, with case studies put together with stakeholders. “Charitable sectors rely on donors, and donors expect
responses in a certain way.” Thus the ubiquitous Logical Framework (LogFrame) project‑mapping tool has been incorporated, along with other tools, such as the Problem Tree and Objective Tree. “We take the best bits of project management and apply them to development situations.”

Cropper identifies a clear trend of greater professionalisation of project management in the sector since the guide was launched. “In 2007, you would have chief executives of NGOs
who did not know that certification in project management even existed.” As the guide has been taken up by organisations, word has got around.

Nuns as project professionals – why not? 

How organisations are using the product varies greatly. Cropper describes how one course was
delivered by WhatsApp to an organisation of nuns based in Mexico, offering relief services to migrants from Central America passing through towards the US border. “They are running small projects, but project management is not a standard part of the nuns’ curriculum. They are working all hours of the day. They are not going to sit down at a laptop.”

Filler cautions against the idea that a professionally accredited project manager is the sole answer. “There is so much more at play with regards to project success.” However, it does
make a project far more likely to succeed and less likely to fail. “Trained project managers are better able to adapt tools and processes to context, which in our sector varies hugely.
They can create consistency, establish clear communication using a common language and much more.”

While a different approach to that in other sectors is required, the same standards, tools and principles apply. “You just apply them in a different way,” says Filler. Mercy Corps operates in locations where “access to some field locations is impossible, either due to security or geography. In these situations, a command‑and‑control approach is obsolete. The sector was “utilising agile project management before it became a thing. You have to adaptively and iteratively manage your project, because the context changes so rapidly.”

“Project management is not a standard part of the nuns’ curriculum. They are working all hours of the day. They are not going to sit down at a laptop”

As an early adopter of the guide, Mercy Corps was instrumental in the sector adopting tools, with the guide as the standard methodology. Over the decade since, most large international NGOs (INGOs) have identified project management as a function in its own right requiring resourcing, says Filler. “We can also see this responsiveness in the number of APM corporate partners
who are INGOs.”


A common vocabulary

Establishing a “common language” of project management across NGOs is advantageous. Says Sarah Cashore, a senior programme officer at Catholic Relief Services, a US‑based humanitarian organisation active in more than 100 countries: “The common vocabulary to engage across
organisations is really useful and important. It highlights a core set of project management disciplines and tools which organisations can easily adapt, especially around key concepts
such as risk and issue management.”

Nigeria‑based Terver Kuegh of Sabi Consulting has long experience of capacity‑building for NGOs, including working with organisations supporting the “huge numbers” of refugees displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria. The guide’s methodology was the “missing link. [Beforehand], there was no standard for managing projects.” Work between larger NGOs and smaller organisations “was not in synch”. Now, the big difference is “the framework that makes people speak one language. Bringing teams together in this simple way really changed things around.”

He worked with one organisation supplying food to refugee camps. “They had hired huge numbers of staff and needed to deploy them quickly. This involved using an online mobile‑ready
learning management system to deploy project management training and tools to frontline staff. Because it was mobile ready, they did not have to stop work to train. Over a period of time, it really improved what they were doing.”

Is the sector adjusting to the professionalisation of project management? Kuegh believes so. “When I support teams and organisations, I use the analogy of being on the table for surgery and
the doctor is not able to describe the surgery tools properly. The work the sector does is life‑saving and requires a certain level of professionalisation.”


Getting buy‑in from the top 

Challenges remain, cautions Cropper. “The private sector has dedicated project planners, but NGOs don’t have the same resources – they can feel overwhelmed.” Getting management
buy‑in can also be difficult, says Kuegh.“If the people at the top see a need for a standardised approach, there is going to be long‑term support for such an initiative, but if they don’t it won’t go far.”

Marlow suggests scepticism still exists. “The sector is moving slowly. There are the leading lights – their partners see what is going on and think this is a good thing. Progress is in the
right direction – a positive trajectory, but a slow one.”

Beyond the larger NGOs, the challenge going forward is getting project management frameworks to the smaller non‑profit organisations and partner organisations in the field. Kuegh argues for a localised approach. “Large organisations can intentionally push support for capacity‑building
for local organisations. One big step towards that would be a targeted sector approach that supports access to this methodology for grassroots organisations.”

A localised approach is also needed to avoid hierarchies between the larger international organisations and these local partners. Filler says: “There is undoubtedly a power imbalance within the sector.” Mercy Corps, like many INGOs, increasingly implements projects with
local partner organisations that provide longer‑term sustainable support to local communities. “Local organisations are not seen as subcontractors but rather critical partners, where the transfer of power and resources as close to the community as possible is essential to realising project benefits.”

Cropper cites the funding model. “Those who provide funding should keep an intentional eye on seeing that a reasonable amount of that funding goes to supporting local organisations.
For example, by donors stipulating that a good part of the budget goes into local capacity‑building.” Yet the donor‑funding model is itself a barrier. Proposals typically require upfront planning, with an outline of outputs, outcomes and activities, “but you might
be three years from the end”. Working to short application timelines for long‑term projects is inherently problematic for good project management. “In a fast‑changing environment, this can be the very antithesis of agile.”

While there is some way to go, the signs point to a sector becoming ever‑more professionalised. And the learning does not go just one way: there is much other sectors can learn from the third sector about project management.

“A more human‑centred design approach to projects in general could make the world a better place”

It’s all about people 

Indeed, project management in the sector calls for quite a skill set, says Cropper, including “agility and a degree of unflappability. Stuff can go wrong; bad things can happen.” And
above all are people skills. “Projects in this sector are all about people – the people doing the work, the local partner organisations. You need to be aware of their needs and skills. That
needs people who believe in and value participatory processes.”

That people aspect is particularly relevant in the lessons the sector can teach about stakeholder management. Development projects, says Cropper, “are all about power.” Understanding
power dynamics is vital. Filler concurs, painting a scenario of the many steps a hypothetical NGO must go through to realise a project to provide basic needs to internally displaced people (IDPs) in a conflict situation. These range from getting IDP buy‑in and getting local government and host communities onside, to seeking funding through a competitive process, accommodating the changing priorities of the donor, returning to the original stakeholders, and finally realising the project, all in a rapidly changing environment. “This requires exceptional stakeholder management.” 

For Kuegh, project management in the sector offers valuable lessons in managing the risks of potential project change. His own work has included helping design a project management strategy for Nigeria’s government, utilising the principles of the guide. “The critical assumptions that made us start this project – do they still hold? Have they changed? Does the community want something different? In this sector the project plan is dynamic. Managers need to be adaptive, responding to the project environment each time it changes. Other sectors can learn from this – a more human‑centred design approach to projects in general could make the world a better place.”

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