I host a conversation between two female nonprofit experts to discuss leadership and project management in the nonprofit sector.
This conversation initially started as a requirement for a project management course I am currently enrolled in. However, after seeing the great advice the experts shared, I knew it was important for other nonprofit professionals to engage in.
Quality leadership is essential for any organization. It takes an exceptional leader to grow and develop the organization internally and externally. As a nonprofit executive, one should have the ability to incorporate project management competencies like active listening, interpersonal relationship building, mentoring, setting direction, and giving power within one's role.
Before we begin the conversation on successful project management strategies and effective leadership, let me introduce you to the experts!
We have Kelly P. Hodges (left) of Hodges Communications Group (HCG), LLC based in Houston, Texas, specializing in fund development, marketing, and event planning and Dr.Ericka Harney (right) of Ericka Harney Consulting, based in Dayton, Ohio specializing in fund development, nonprofit leadership coaching, and staff development.
Let's get started!
"What's your motivation to stay in the nonprofit sector?"
Both experts agree it takes a giving heart and a true passion for the community and the internal desire to help develop others to be a successful nonprofit professional.
Hodges: "My desire to help others is what keeps me motivated. Nonprofit is not sexy and not lucrative. Giving back is something that was instilled in me by my paternal grandparents. They were very giving people. What keeps me in the industry is knowing there is a need for individuals like me who believe in helping others and want to give back to the community in which they live."
Harney: "I’ve always been driven by service and giving. I intentionally pursued a career in the
nonprofit sector with the desire to serve as an executive director. While I’ve achieved
this goal, I stay in the industry to lend my expertise and experience to up and coming
professionals, nonprofit organizations, and assist others in growing."
"What is your personal leadership style? What other traits would be needed to be a successful leader in a project manager role?"
Harney explains her incorporation of “followership”, a strategy to develop team members who are not in leadership roles by empowering and guiding them. Harney even encourages disagreement so all team members can be heard.
"I’m a huge believer in Followership – where leadership focus is really turned to those
who are not in a leadership role so they are empowered and supported in their work that
the leader guides. My personal leadership style is like this – listening and encouraging
while also guiding. I think a successful leader in a project manager role facilitates communication, encourages disagreement so all voices are heard, show compassion and empathy, and when needed, get their hands in the work."
Hodges also has a similar strategy by encouraging her team’s input by asking “what do you think?” to create an inclusive environment for all to contribute to final decisions made.
"I would describe myself as a participative and democratic leader. I believe in asking “What do you think?” and spreading authority and power throughout the organization by presenting problems for discussion and working with team members to reach a final decision. Other traits that are beneficial are patience, and being very organized."
"How are you able to motivate team members that may be hesitant to voice their concerns?"
Harney explains the importance of understanding and acting on each team member's communication style.
"To be able to do this well, you have to know your team members. If they don’t respond well to being called out in front of others, I approach them individually to encourage them to speak up and share their ideas. I let them know I plan on calling on them in an upcoming meeting because their ideas need to be heard. Sometimes, folks just need space and encouragement in a meeting to speak up and you can call on them to share their thoughts and ideas."
Hodges brings up the importance of an open-door policy and adhering to that commitment.
"I reinforce that we have an open-door policy. Team leads are also empowered to connect with staff regarding concerns as well."
"How are you able to manage a challenging project?"
Hodges brought up the daily challenges of navigating through the current COVID-19 pandemic as an Executive Director of a nonprofit. Hodges quickly adapted and educated her board members about the importance of re-strategizing the fund-raising model and the need to stay in communication with their stakeholders.
"I’m currently an Executive Director and the current pandemic has caused my agency to pivot. The first major challenge is fundraising. ... we’ve had to pivot to a virtual fundraising model. I was able to manage this project by educating the board as it relates to virtual fundraising and the importance of maintaining contact with donors."
In her previous role as an Executive Director, Harney, and her team of board members was given the challenging task to create a three-year strategic plan. Once the plan was created, Harney mentions the importance of regularly referring to the plan when making leadership decisions and day to day operations.
"A challenging, yet inspiring, project I worked on was the creation and fulfillment of a 3-
year strategic plan as an executive director. The plan identified every task necessary to achieve each goal, what was needed resource-wise for each task, timelines, responsible parties, and notes –what you would expect as a typical project management plan. ...the plan was part of all discussions and regularly used in the day to day work as well as leadership decisions like budget, program additions, and governance."
"What are the common “warning signs” of a project getting off track? What do you do in order to steer projects back in the right direction?"
Harney mentions traits including team members getting “stuck” due to lack of resources or not asking for help when needed, causing demotivation and missed timelines. Harney suggests those warning signs should be combated by the project manager or the leadership emphasizing throughout the project timeline that asking for assistance and communicating needs is highly encouraged and should not be seen as negative consequences.
"A project gets off track when people get stuck – either in their own thinking or lack of a
resource – and then do not ask for support. In addition, snags or ‘stuck moments’ are
then not communicated, people get demotivated, and the project falls behind. Leaders
need to point out that asking for assistance, communicating needs, and admitting if
something isn’t working is a good thing, not something that is bad or automatically
reflects poorly on an individual or affects their job security. If people are supported by
leadership, everyone can jump in to get a project back on track."
Hodges mentions that missed deadlines and disorganization are common traits of project failure. To combat those obstacles, she first identifies what area of work or teams that are disorganized and guides them by restructuring the workload and timelines.
"The common traits I see are missed deadlines and disorganization. I steer the project back on track by identifying the area that is most disorganized and working closely with the team to get the project back on track. This includes but is not limited to, updated, or revising the current scope of work and timeline."
"What is the most critical aspect of project management?"
Hodges mentions the need for team accountability and the need for project leaders to check-in with each individual team member throughout the project timeline to ensure needs and project goals are met.
"The most critical aspect of managing a project is holding individuals accountable. Accountability is an area that is most often overlooked. It is important to have temperature checks or 1:1 with staff to assess where they are and to identify if additional support is needed to reach the project goal (s)."
Harney mentions the need for direct communication and effective leadership skills.
"The importance of communication is the most critical aspect. To have good communication, people need to feel empowered and heard, which comes from good leadership. Leadership and communication go hand in hand as critical aspects. Skills can be developed, as can
task lists and Gantt charts – clear and positive communication is a choice that all team members chose to take on or neglect."
"How do you define a "successful" project?"
Harney defines project success not just by meeting the project goals, but if the project enabled team members to professionally grow and if the project made a true impact of positively changing lives.
"I define the success of a project by meeting the objectives or goals set in the beginning.
The growth of project staff also lends to the success of a project as does the impact of a project. If we look at the potential impact first, a project can be REALLY successful at not only achieving a goal but positively changing lives."
Hodges defines project success by if project goals were met, the project was concluded before or met the timeline given, and the client’s expectations were met.
"Success is measured by the quality of work provided. If the client is happy and if the project goals have been met or exceeded in a timely manner that is how I define success."
Follow Up Questions
Both experts were asked different follow-up questions.
"Many organizations fall victim to creating elaborate, strategic plans and never utilizing them as guides to the organizational process. What advice would you give to combat this issue?"
"I believe strategic plans can be one of the best tools for invigorating an organization and creating the foundation for moving an organization forward in its mission. To be successful in carrying out a strategic plan, you have to keep it front of mind. Task out the major projects in the overall goals and remember not everything has to be done in year one, including due dates, and keep the efforts going. Use the strategic plan as the agenda for committee meetings and board meetings so that it doesn’t get lost. Give project updates and make sure the strategic plan includes these updates and notes.
Keeping a document ‘living’ requires individuals to access it. The most successful strategic plan I ever worked with was an online document, accessible 24-7 by staff and board members. We were able to set timelines and assignments, attach any documents, and keep everyone up to date on status. Each committee recorded their progress in the document and everyone had comments included before it was included in the board meeting materials. By keeping the strategic plan ‘living’ if you will, made sure we budgeted appropriately each year for each project or task, as well as everyone knew when there were issues or successes."
"Having a leader who is also an excellent communicator is essential to successful project management. How are you able to convince the "nay-sayers" otherwise that follow the principle of "no news is good news"?"
"The ‘no news is good news’ mentality, keeps people in the dark, and creates anxiety. Even when a leader communicates updates, everyone stays on the same page and knows what is going on. Without that communication, team members are left wondering what progress has been made and if they are on the right track. To me, having too much information is never an issue."
"When identifying areas in a project that are off track, you start with the most disorganized and begin working with that specific team to reorganize. Can you briefly walk me through that process?"
"Identify the area of need or deficiencies. Review current status. Meet with (project) leads. Reassess goals. Review the timeline. Move forward."
"How are you able to leverage your successful projects to gain more clients?"
"Satisfied clients are your best advertisers. Satisfied clients will refer their colleagues and network. Successful projects stand on their own!"
Personal Input from the Conversation
I am not surprised both professionals had similar answers to most of the questions due to their similar leadership styles. Leadership is a critical aspect of differentiating between “good” and “exceptional” not only project management but overall organization operations. It’s obvious throughout this interview both of these professionals reflect exceptional leadership skills in their work.
It’s important to note their passion to develop others. Without that ingrained passion for the industry, the effectiveness of an organization’s leadership will suffer and will reflect within the operations of the organization. This conversation acts as a testimony to incorporate effective leadership methods in nonprofit project management.
I want to thank both Kelly and Ericka for their input on this topic of leadership and project management! Both are excellent leaders in the nonprofit world and we are lucky to have them in the field!