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At last: tailor-made planning for NGOs

Women gather in a tent in rural Nepal to hear the details of a health project - Peter Barker | Panos Pictures

It’s a particularly tough time for charities, both big and small. With less funding available to distribute, donors quite rightly want to see good value for money, including ensuring that projects are run on time and to budget.

Yet, in the not-for-profit sector, the skills needed to successfully manage a project are sometimes less highly valued than technical skills. Compare this with the private sector where profit is usually the most prized outcome and where efficiencies are, as a result, given their due importance.

After more than 10 years managing complex international development projects I began to get a little frustrated that although there seemed to be ample time to discuss, reflect, plan, experiment and change the technical aspects of the projects, there was less emphasis on the need to share ideas around the ‘back office’ aspects of the projects – the skills, systems, tools and processes required to deliver the technical products. In other words: project management.

But as I searched for project management training a nagging question remained: would a structured project management approach be relevant and applicable to Panos London’s work?

I posed this question to the Project Management for NGOs (PM4NGOs) LinkedIn group. A resounding answer of ‘yes’ came back, later backed up by an ODI opinion piece discussing how structured project management approaches can complement and intersect with iterative monitoring and evaluation methodologies such as Outcome Mapping.

My search led me to John Cropper, an international development veteran who was Oxfam’s head of management accountability and is now a director at LINGOS (Learning In NGOs). John has spent the last five years creating Project Management for Development Professionals (PMD-Pro), the first internationally accredited project management course for NGOs.

Studying PMD-Pro was great. Alongside three Panos London colleagues who also took part in the training, we learnt new terms and concepts (many from the private sector), reflected on familiar old ones and thought through how it might all work within Panos. It was like taking a well-worn, familiar but crumpled old coat, hanging it, cleaning and brushing it off and pinning on some sparkly new brooches to spruce it up. Challenging and affirming at the same time, it gave us a structure and shared language with which to test and communicate our new approach to planning, implementing and learning from our work in more participatory, comprehensive and detailed ways.

One of the ways that PMD-Pro differs from other project management approaches such as Prince2, which is used widely in the private sector, is that it recognises the importance of the relationship with the donor by building the complex project design and proposal-writing phase into the project cycle.

But perhaps the most important difference is the emphasis on impact. Project managers in the NGO sector are responsible not only for the inputs, activities and outputs of a project but also for considering the higher levels of social impact – the project’s outcomes and goals, an additional level that is crucial for our sector.

Take the construction industry. Simply designing and erecting a building would achieve one aspect of a construction project – the outcome. Yet a project manager for a construction project in the NGO sector would need to look beyond the output alone to the impact that the building would have on the local community. What types of tenants or owners would be attracted to the building? In what ways could the architecture help to attract or prevent anti-social behaviour? They would also need to consider national or international goals around increasing affordable housing, for example. PMD-Pro helps us to model and scenario-build different causes and effects of specific and complex social problems. It encourages the use of thinking and discussion tools such as ‘problem and objective trees’, ‘theories of change’ and logframes to help plan, implement, monitor and evaluate the complex social change project.

At Panos London we are already enjoying an increased understanding and use of these and other tools such as risk registers (a tool to map and manage all the potential risks in a project) and issue logs (a tool to record any problems that may arise). But possibly more importantly, we now have a shared language and, increasingly, a shared understanding around the advantages of a more structured approach to project management. This allows for better modelling and therefore planning, better monitoring and therefore more informed and transparent decision-making, all leading to better achieving Panos London’s mission of increased numbers of poor and marginalised people being able to communicate their needs and ideas to development debates. PMD-Pro’s mantra of the need for detailed and comprehensive planning, monitoring and measuring are already beginning to pay off.


Bec Shaw Crompton

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