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Project management tools: What’s best for your nonprofit?

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

When Annie Cornett was hired by Bloomington-based Social Legends two years ago, the company tracked its projects by using Excel. Teams used both Microsoft’s OneDrive and Dropbox to share files.

While this system worked really well for a long time, as the company started adding people, it just wasn’t practical.

“From an efficiency standpoint, we really wanted to look at how we could improve tracking all the different tasks that we were doing and be able to maintain records of what was done,” said Cornett, a consultant.

And this company is not alone. Many are looking for project management tools, and the software industry has responded.

With virtual project teams on the rise, and the advent of mobile apps, project management software tools are a burgeoning trend. Earlier this year, several lists offered the top 50 project management tools. Not just the top 10, but the top 50.

The definition of “project-management software” varies widely, and the needs are likely to depend on the project, the team and project-management style. What’s available out there and what tools might support a nonprofit’s project-management needs? So with all these choices, how does a nonprofit or small business decide what is the best fit?

Here are steps that two local nonprofits used or are using to make that decision. Social Legends is a consulting firm and Prosperity Indiana is a membership organization that focuses on community development. Tech Soup, a nonprofit international network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provides technical support and donations and discounted rates on technological tools to nonprofits, also weighed in.

Social Legends

Cornett began with a general online Google search to investigate various systems and reviews of different products. It’s important, she said, to realize that there are people who are doing the comparison work.

Project management services are typically online systems designed for collaboration on projects. These systems allow team members and supervisors to keep an eye on details to complete a project and provide both a big picture of all projects and the nitty-gritty details about work being completed.

One key factor for Social Legends was how user-friendly a system was and how well it would integrate with other programs.

“We didn’t want to spend a lot of time in training, trying to understand a new system, learning all the new bells and whistles. We wanted it to be pretty intuitive. And we kind of just wanted to jump in and run with it pretty quickly.

“We didn’t want to select a system and in a year and a half have to move on to something else because it doesn’t have the capabilities to integrate the way we wanted it to,” she said.

Once Cornett narrowed the selection to four software programs, other staff members jumped in and tried each demo system back-to-back.

“It’s worth exploring from a free trials standpoint. We got in and just played. A lot of companies will give you 30 days for free. You can get in, tool around and see what the different functionalities are and how easy it is to use whether it’s adding a project or adding a task or tracking your time in system.

“So we had to get in the weeds a little bit toward the end and use those different systems, and we really just looked at the different research that had been done and compared the functionalities.

“It’s really intuitive in a lot of ways, but I think a lot of people get scared,” she said.

Staff members also tested some of the online training videos. One or two people blind-tested the system by doing some of the basics. They had no background knowledge.

“It was kind of a test run on our end, too, to see how user-friendly the system was going to be,” she said. “They didn’t have any problem with the basic functionality, adding a project, adding a task, putting your details in, figuring out reminders, checking things off.

“That really was kind of one of the selling points of this system for us,” she said.

Social Legends selected Teamwork Projects, which is cloud-based. For about a year and a half, it has used the smallest office plan, which is $49 a month, and has five users ranging in age from 27 to 42. It has helped align work plans and provide storage space for 40 projects. The company’s information is stored on its website and goes to the cloud, too.

“It allows all of us to work remotely and file share. So if we have a project and we’re working on a job, we can leave the file in the system for the next person. It’s just more efficient,” said Cornett.

And while it has different functions that they don’t use, they determined they could grow into them.

“It’s going to have all these functionalities, but you don’t have to use them all either,” said Cornett. “It allows you to customize it to how your team works, which is what  is really nice about the system.”

Cornett said everything in the tool is centrally located, including tasks, timelines and notes. For the company it has helped to ensure quality control – files don’t get lost between team members and, there’s no confusion on a timeline and all of the current versions of all the files are in the system.”

Another feature is the ability to archive a project.

“We can save all the data, and we can save all the different steps, timelines and all the documents. It’s really helped us to kind of streamline storage as well.”

When Social Legends has needed technical assistance, it has received good responses. Teamwork Projects is always looking to improve and has been responsive to suggestions from its clients.

Social Legends isn’t done investigating the system. Every month, staffers identify an additional feature and determine if it’s a good fit and will improve the quality of their work.

There is another feature that has been a boon to their work with clients – adding an external user to a specific project.

“When we’ve worked with different clients on certain projects, we actually created their project plan in our system and have been able to give them access to it,” Cornett said. “I will say when we have brought outside users into the system, we’ve not had problems with them having usability issues either.”

Although Cornett said they don’t run into many nonprofits that are currently using a project management system, she sees how the ability to add users could be helpful. The system allows adding access, which can be particularly helpful with committee members.

“I can see it being a great tool to help manage those smaller groups that get pulled into those kinds of activities along the way,” Cornett said.

“I could see a lot of nonprofit organizations really liking the ability to track time on various projects and events. When they wonder, ‘How much time am I putting into that? What is the return on the investment?’

“It has the option to do the time tracking and really look at ‘How much time did we spend on something?’ You can do it from your phone. It’s easy to jump into a meeting or when you start work on a project, you can turn the time tracker on really quick and easily. So we’ve done that for a few projects just to see how long this is really taking us,” she said.

The only drawback, Cornett said, is getting used to a new system and a new routine.

“It’s just the switch culturally for us to a new system. You kind of have to retrain your brain, you have to retrain your team a little bit.”

Prosperity Indiana

Jessica Love, executive director at Prosperity Indiana, is currently on the quest to find a project management tool.

“I’m in a nonprofit group and folks talk a lot about project management tools that they have found useful: Monday and Asana,” said Love.

One goal for her is that the software provides a visual snapshot of projects.

While her staff is using ToDo List and it works for some projects, like the organization’s annual conference, it doesn’t provide her a comprehensive look at all that the staffers are challenged with completing, and they don’t use the team function well.

“Although we track indicators and our team members individually keep track of their work plan, we cannot visually see the incremental progress we’re making on our work plan. We can have a sense of it, but I think it will be helpful for us to be able to just pull something up at any moment and see where we are,” she said.

Love has delegated the exploration process to another team member who is researching available software and developing a spreadsheet to share how the tools compare.

“We’re looking at different options. We want to see at any time where we are with projects, and better than just printing reports.”

And while there are reviews and ratings online, the search doesn’t stop there. Some solutions will have all the tasks a team is looking for, while others will only have a few.

Love knows this all too well.

“I also think if it’s not working, don’t keep using it,” she said.

“If you explored it, you thought it was great, you found this awesome system and then it didn’t work for you, you cannot keep making it work. We did that, when we got our new CRM. We did so much research. We talked to all kinds of other associations. We thought we had scoured the research and felt really good about it.

“And then we used the system. And even though it was really painful to have to admit, we completely went to a different CRM.”

One thing that Love wants to be able to do is at any given time know the stage of project so she can support staff members better.

“I try to be encouraging when staff members accomplish something, but I don’t always know. I may encourage them at a time when I have time to and not encourage them on something else that was really awesome because of my own capacity. So my fear is that when I do provide encouragement or recognition of their work, it may feel like a moving target: ‘Oh, she really liked this one.’”

Some reviewers recommend a Gantt chart, a tool that allows a manager at any time to see who is doing what, and how various tasks are related. It helps everyone use available resources more effectively.

“So I think a new tool is going to help us all manage ourselves individually and to give me a better understanding of where staff is with certain things. It will help if we can see it visually. I’m so visual and I know a lot of people are,” Love said.

Her goal is to help her employees balance their work better and also celebrate their accomplishments.

“I’m envisioning that it will help me communicate to them what success looks like for me. That’s one of the things that I personally want to improve,” she said.

In total, the nonprofit will have seven to 10 users with access to a project management tool. Love admits she doesn’t even know what to expect for pricing and what they might be able to eliminate.

Love recognizes that it is important to acknowledge that there is no one perfect system and it’s important to understand that just because it works for somebody else, it may not work for her team and match the nonprofit’s priorities.

“So we’re exploring. There will still be that gut check of not just doing what’s big and flashy. We want to explore and see what works best and stack them against each other before we pick one.”

TechSoup

Nick Mediati is TechSoup’s marketing specialist. For over three decades, the nonprofit based in San Francisco has solicited donations of technological products and then sells them to nonprofits for a nominal fee. This year its philanthropic services and giving programs reached the milestone of benefiting over 1 million NGOs in 236 countries and territories.

“Personally, I am not too attuned to how nonprofits as a whole are using project management tools, but it would not come as a surprise if many organizations weren’t using such tools.” However, he feels there is more interest.

While Mediati personally uses old-school pen and paper lists to track tasks, his department uses Wrike to track team projects and tasks.

“It is a pretty power-packed tool, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do. I personally rely heavily on its built-in calendar, which lets you get a visual overview of your upcoming projects and tasks.

“It’s definitely had a learning curve, but it also has made it easier to track down deliverables for projects so we’re not left to track them down in emails, on Slack, or wherever else.

Mediati, too, believes that when selecting a project management tool, it is important to take several for a test drive.

“You often don’t know the pros and cons of a project management tool until you actually dig in and use it, and many — though not all — project management tools provide either limited-time trial versions or stripped-down free versions so you can get an idea of how they work without making a monetary commitment.”

His recommendation is to start out by determining what the organization’s needs are and what are its pain points.

“Depending on your needs, maybe you don’t need a full-fledged project management solution. Consider if a full-fledged, high-powered task management tool would require too much mental overhead to use. As a former colleague once put it, task management shouldn’t be a task unto itself,” he said.

Mediati said another consideration is whether you have a preference to track projects using an online tool like Wrike or Asana, or a traditional piece of software like Microsoft Project, which TechSoup offers.

In the end, he said a lot of it comes down to personal preference and the approach you and your organization take to managing projects and tasks. Ask for staff input, including what they may have used and what they liked or disliked.

Mediati also suggested when considering a tool to ask about nonprofit discounts. One of the services that TechSoup has been able to offer for other products is a reduced rate for registered nonprofits. The company website’s comments space has several nonprofits requesting Monday’s and Asana’s project management tools.

And while not currently offered, TechSoup is currently negotiating with Asana to offer a potential 50 percent discount to qualified nonprofits.

“The biggest challenge can be learning a tool’s limitations and adapting your workflow to them. Pretty much every tool out there has its benefits and drawbacks, so there will be a learning curve.

“I can think of plenty of reasons to use one, but for me personally I would point to the fact that it keeps people accountable. Everyone on the team knows what they’re responsible for and when they need to provide their part of a project,” said Mediati.

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