Sunday, 3 March 2024
Sunday, 3 March 2024

The projectification of charity leadership

Historically, it could be argued that charity leadership was primarily about delivering BAU (business as usual) with relatively limited expectations in relation to organisational change and development.

Today, this is arguably reversed with many charity leaders focused on delivering change effectively. Whether it be achieving charitable objectives according to the latest ESG (environmental, social and governance) expectations or delivering improvements in digital infrastructure, it is no wonder that third-sector leaders feel like change is the only constant.

Delivering change effectively, with a focus on benefits realisation is where project management can add significant value to charities. There are some leaders who think of project management as bringing an administrative burden, whilst providing limited value and adding significant cost. However, the reality is somewhat different. Charity leaders who understand the principles of project management are well-equipped to deliver change and maximise the impact of their organisation.

Project management does not yet have an equivalent status to other professions that support effective leadership. This is evident in MBA (Masters in Business Administration) programmes, where the typical core content remains finance, HR (Human resources) and marketing, whilst project management may only feature as an optional component if indeed it appears all.

For clarity, the argument here is not that charity leaders should be qualified project professionals, much like they do not need to be qualified accountants, marketers, or HR professionals. The point is that applying the principles of effective project management can make leaders more effective. This ‘projectification of leadership’ is already happening. In executive teams, the CPO (Chief Project Officer) or the CTO (Chief Transformation Officer) is an increasingly common role, whereas BAU roles, such as the COO (Chief Operating Officer) are becoming less common.

The specific nature of the value added from a ‘projectification of leadership’ approach will vary from one charity to another, but it is perhaps helpful to consider some examples. The five areas selected here are highly relevant to third-sector organisations: resource optimisation, risk management, the business case, stakeholder engagement and benefits realisation.

Resource Optimisation

A key responsibility of charity leaders is to ensure they get maximum ‘bang for their buck’. In practice, this means ensuring that resources are used efficiently with minimal wastage. From resource deployment and scheduling to cost planning and contingency, project management techniques can help charity leaders to optimise the impact of their finite resources.

Risk Management

Every organisation has to manage risks, but charity leaders will sometimes need to actively take risks to meet their charitable objectives. Think of charities with volunteers operating in international conflict zones. Or perhaps it is making difficult decisions about investing the charity’s reserves into digital development for potential long-term gains. Principles such as risk appetite, risk transfer and risk avoidance are core within the discipline of project management and vital for charity leaders.

The Business Case

The demands on charities to deliver more are incessant. It could be to accelerate their work to reach beneficiaries more quickly or to expand their work to reach more beneficiaries. How should charity leaders (executives and Trustees) make such difficult decisions when there is often merit in all choices? Appraising options consistently and equitably through well-structured business cases is once again an area where project management has value to add.

Stakeholder Engagement

Beneficiaries, funders, the Charity Commission, Trustees, volunteers… to name but a few. All charities have stakeholders and the public benefit nature of their work adds a further layer of complexity. Project management methods can assist charity leaders in assessing the influence and interest of their stakeholder groups so they can ensure their engagement is effective and that solutions are coproduced.

Benefits Realisation

Everything that charity leaders do has the ultimate aim of delivering benefits. Effective benefits realisation is not an after-thought, but a well-thought-out strategic approach. Project professionals have been honing their benefits realisation craft over many years, so applying these insights to charitable contexts could deliver enormous value for public benefit.

One final aspect of project management that charity leaders could capture through the ‘projectification of leadership’ is ‘lessons learned, lessons applied’. Many charities will be embarking on delivering a change that has already been delivered (or at least attempted) by another charity. How can charity leaders take the lessons learned from other leaders and apply them to improve their chances of success? Once again, project management provides a structured approach that helps individual charities to support the wider charitable system, whilst also gaining themselves.

Ultimately, the ‘projectification of charity leadership’ is about combining the benefit of hindsight with the luxury of insight, to provide the privilege of foresight so that projects are more likely to be successful. Why? Because when projects succeed in charities, society benefits.

Prof Adam Boddison OBE
CEO – Association for Project Management
Managing Director – On Radar


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