I don’t quote Augustine Law (XLV for the truly keen) very often – but here goes, “the unexpected should have been expected” – I guess this shows that nothing is new – but it does make me think.

It really should ring some bells for NGO Project Managers (NGOPMs – could this be a new acronym? – every now and again, the urge to acronym takes hold). How often have we looked back at a project and thought – “I should have seen that coming”. It does, in fact surprise me how often this happens – so why? What can we do? When I look at risk – if it’s mentioned at all in NGO projects – there appear to be two schools of thought:

School 1 – the “masters of disaster” – for them risk is like the a Sunday outing for the riders of the apocalypse – death, plague, famine etc. coming to a screen near you.  Statements say things like, “severe famine may impact on the project”. Well, I never – there’s a turn up for you. The emergency brigade often seem to see the world like this, statements are often prefaced with, “when I was in Juba…”

School 2 – the “politicians” – these guys are true masters at hedging their bets with meaningless statements such as “politicial instability may impact on deliverables” – assuming of course that there were some deliverables. HRI’s Patricia - http://handrelief.blogspot.com/2010/10/patricia-and-horse.html is usually a practised exponent … 23 year old expats can pontificate about political risk to their heart’s content as they sip imported South African wine and hold forth on national politics despite not speaking any of the local language (well other than to order in restaurants…).

Both of these are excuses and quite innovative ways of avoiding accountability – they don’t have anything to do with risk. What can you do about famine, plague or political instability….? So when you don’t do anything and it all goes tits up, well, never mind. No, I forget – we “MONITOR”. We always say this… what does it mean – watch TV? I think – no surprise here – that this is all very lazy thinking.

Project level risk is about the risk to the project itself. It is specific, not generic and so risk needs to be expressed in terms of its impact on the project – meaning its impact on time, quality and/or cost. If we can be specific about the impact of the risk on the project, we can then say how likely the risk is and how severe it’s impact. This way we can categorise it and then have a fighting chance of actually doing something about it.

Always assuming that we actually do want to do something about it! Now pass me another G&T…

Many thanks to @marian abernathy for the following link in answer to a previous post:


I think that the core is in the following quote:

“Few new nonprofit ventures, in contrast, ever reach national scale (Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America are among the exceptions), and the largest nonprofits rarely fall out of the top rankings or disappear. Apparently, Schumpeter’s cycle doesn’t operate in the social sector”.

Well, if Schumpeter’s cycle doesn’t work, why not? Personally, I think that this speaks to another major problem in the sector – there is no failure mechanism. If an NGO’s Board wants to carry on and the organisation has cash, there is nothing to stop them. There is no obligation to merge or look for allies. There is no real driver of quality other than the values of the organisation. You can have many organisations doing similar work in the same areas – replicating all the costs of doing business. There is nothing to stop this from happening. In fact, the way that donor funding works almost facilitates this as agencies compete for funding and – as we know – national donor agencies tend to fund NGOs from their own countries first….

So, how can an NGO fail? It seems to me that the only way that an NGO could fail is through losing its reputation in some way and for donors (institutional and individual) to stop providing finance. What can trigger this? Clearly fraud is one risk – but I think that NGOs take fraud seriously and manage to mitigate very well despite working in very difficult locations, where there is a culture of corruption.

Ignoring fraud, what else could cause an organisation to lose its reputation? Hopefully, not delivering on its mandate would be one. Doing the wrong projects or delivering projects poorly repeatedly should (I would have thought) be a cause for failure – as it would be in other sectors. I don’t know of a single case where this has happened and I would be very interested and grateful if anyone can show examples of where this has happened to a large organisation. I’m sure there must be some examples… I know of lots of examples where big NGOs have cancelled grants to smaller, local organisations – poor performance etc. I even know of donors, who have qualified large NGOs because of their poor reporting. But actual delivery?

If this is the case, I can see why NGO Boards barely or rarely consider projects as a Board level issue. Why should they, if it doesn’t impact on reputation? Perhaps this is what leads us to seeing the  “no-cost extension” as a get-out-of-jail-free card for any project delays. I’ll write about this separately – but I wonder if NGO staff would be so sanguine about delays if it were their house/school/health centre being built.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is no real link between actual delivery i.e. doing what we said we would do and either gaining or losing reputation – except with project beneficiaries – but who’s asking them?

This is some text from PMDPro – more info on PMDPro at http://tiny.cc/s1u64) from @mikeculligan – please feel free to review and add any comments. What do you think? Does this make the case? Strong enough? Too strong? Over to you.


Globally, there are hundreds of thousands of development organizations working to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.

Together, these organizations form an extremely heterogeneous group and differ in an array of ways. Some are government affiliated, others bi-lateral or multi-lateral agencies; many are associated with educational institutions, and most are non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Among them, many work internationally, while even more work in a single country or are focused on a specific community. Additionally, these organizations vary substantively in the services they provide. Is the purpose of the organization to:

  • Improve the environment
  • Support child welfare?
  • Provide humanitarian assistance?
  • Develop infrastructure?
  • Promote the observance of human rights?

Or, is the organization working in multiple areas and performing different functions in different places?

Nevertheless, while development organizations are heterogeneous and unique in many ways, they all share one thing in common – a culture of project management that pervades their work. Development organizations implement their work through projects. Their offices are staffed with project officers who work with project teams and implementing partners to deliver project deliverables. The members of the project team are asked to write project proposals, recruit project officers, develop project plans, implement project activities, monitor project progress, and evaluate project impact.

The success of all these organizations and the livelihoods and well-being of the hundreds of millions of people they serve, depends on their ability to effectively and efficiently deliver project results. Development organizations have traditionally failed to adopt a comprehensive, balanced and integrated approach to project management. Within the sector, there is a strong incentive to invest in skills and processes that contribute to high-quality project proposals which will successfully attract donor funding. There is also a strong demand on the part of donors to establish skills and processes that demonstrate that the project is complying with donor requirements and resulting in social change. These skills and processes are vitally important and are a necessary component of successful project management. However, while they are necessary, they are not sufficient to ensure project success.

The challenge is to introduce a comprehensive, balanced and integrated approach to project management that is contextualized to the international development sector. Yes, we should acknowledge and reinforce the existance of development sector expertise in the area of project design, monitoring and evaluation. These strengths, however, need to be complemented by a introducing and reinforcing the project management skills and processes that are often underemphasized or ignored in our sector.


Good news from DFID – increased accountability on grants

A lot of people look on donor driven accountability as interference. Personally, I don’t care where it comes from as long as it drives greater professionalisation and improved delivery to project beneficiaries. I always wondered why it was that in NGOs, the only people who “get” project management are the IT staff. Is IT in some mysterious way better suited to project management? I had a moment of clarity one day when Oxfam’s e-mail crashed. A generalised wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lots of upset staff. More importantly, lots of upset senior staff. Even more importantly, lots of upset Directors, who tell IT to get it sorted…… Instant feedback. Problem fixed.

In development projects, who is providing this feedback? Who is shouting loudly? Where are beneficiary voices? Are they able to shout loudly? Do we ask what they feel about a project being 2 or 3 months late? Answers on a “virtual” postcard, please!

Given a couple of my last posts, you might think that it is all doom and gloom. Actually, it isn’t. The current zeitgeist as expressed by APM’s (www.apm.org.uk)  Scott Wilkenshaw is about benefits realisation in terms of outcomes and portfolio management is all about balancing long-term projects with short term crises. I paraphrase slightly but NGOs are good at working out the chain of activities to outputs to outcomes. They way I put this to some provate sector PMs recently was, “are you building flats, homes or communities?”

They immediately replied that they build the flats not homes – which is why – 20 years later – they (buildings, not the PMs!) get demolished as no-one wants to live with urine soaked stairwells, vandalised lifts and drug dealing round the corner. If the PMs looked on sustainable communities as an outcome and the buildin itself as one of a series of outputs, we would have far fewer urban nightmares….

When I explained some NGO type tools – such as logframes – they have expressed immediate interest. So it isn’t a one-way street. NGOs are good at working out “the right things to do” and the project management profession is good at “doing things right” – with my apologies to Peter Drucker.

We have tried to marry these concepts in PMDPro – http://tiny.cc/3i8qo – a certification for NGO project managers. I’d love to know what people think…..

A few people have asked me for my thoughts on project management in the sector – so here they are! It is a little dated – but this is the full text of the key note speech at the launch of PMDPro in 2009 – http://ngolearning.org/pm4ngos/pages/certification.aspx

Project Management in International NGOs_final

Great link from @pericberg on PM tools for small businesses – probably very applicable for NGO needs.


Personally, I think the key is to not over-spec and keep things really simple. MS Project and the like can turn into huge, extractive “sinks” for small organisations. As always, people make projects not software and so I am always a little wary of a focus on software tools, but you do need something, so…

Smartsheet – one of the tools reviewed looks interesting because it is all in excel – which as we know from research is the most commonly used PM tool in NGOs….