September 5, 2021

By Jonah Halper

Get it Done: Project Management Principles for your School’s Development Efforts

You probably can recall a development team meeting where the brainstorming was exhilarating, you readily saw the impact it would have on your bottom line, and you were more than ready to get to work and make it happen. Flash forward six weeks, and it dawned on you that those great ideas never really made it anywhere. Even worse, it didn’t seem like it was a conscious decision to close down the implementation of these strategies. They just, kind of, petered out.

What happened?

Without a structured process to execute your strategies, they simply withered away. This is because good ideas don’t fail because they aren’t good ideas. They fail because they are not properly implemented. Principles typically employed by project management teams can ensure that your great development plans are executed successfully.

Project Management


Project management needs to be built on a strong foundation that defines why you are doing what you are doing. It demands a definition of success. How do you know when a project is completed, unless you define the goals from the onset?

In the words of Melinda Gates, from her TEDx Change talk:

"In development, the evaluation comes at the very end of the project... I had somebody from an NGO once describe it to me as bowling in the dark. They said, “You roll the ball, you hear some pins go down. It’s dark, you can’t see which one goes down until the lights come on, and then you can see your impact."

If you want to both reach your goals and get your staff excited about the project, you need to define success. This then will give everyone involved in the project an understanding of how they each fit into the campaign, how they are a critical part of the process. When that is clear, you can begin breaking down the tasks and giving out roles and responsibilities.


With the goal in mind, you need to think about the steps involved to reach the desired outcome—in the simplest way possible. When you don’t define the tasks in a project at the onset, you will find

that many unnecessary tasks are added to the mix. When you force yourself to spell out the steps, you will find that the work can be streamlined. Whatever time you invested in mapping out the project and its steps is going to be a tiny fraction compared to all the extra work you will be doing if you don’t go through this exercise.


Now that you have documented tasks, you can proactively decide who is best suited for each one, and also get a good idea if you are overloading any one staff person or lay leader with the roles and responsibilities. This way, when your project is ready to launch, you can make sure that you have the right people and they are equipped to accomplish their assignments on deadline.


Deadlines are tricky because despite our best efforts, they are fluid. There are two things to consider. Can the tasks be accomplished between now and project completion? Also, do the deadlines take into consideration when tasks are contingent on the work of others? The trick here is to set deadlines and to rely on weekly meetings to ensure you stay on track, and if it is impossible to maintain the set deadline, everyone involved will be on the same page for those adjustments to the timeline.


At the heart of project management is the scrum or standing meeting. This meeting format makes sure all players know where the project stands by asking three questions: “What got done last week?” “What needs to get done this week?” “Are there any problems that could derail the progress?” A team that works in lockstep and observes the obstacles together will be more inclined to provide solutions and support each other for the sake of the project.

Project Management for Fundraising

When project management is used to ensure your annual, capital or endowment campaigns are kept on track, it fosters some remarkable results that go beyond hitting your campaign goals. Internally, it creates a heightened sense of collaboration and accountability. The team understands that it does indeed take a team.

Also, your volunteers will be more inclined to accept leadership positions knowing that their involvement is not ambiguous. When I started my career at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Linda Hurwitz, a dedicated community leader who is now a leader on the national scene, gave me a valuable piece of advice:

“If you give committee members something useful to do, it will engage them and move the relationship a step forward. If you waste their time, it will put them two steps back.”

Therefore, “We want you to get involved” is not a good sell. “We want you to do X, Y and Z, and this is where your job begins and ends” is a much more compelling ask. Of course, the job satisfaction goes way up when you can definitively say that you have accomplished your objectives, something that is most clear when relying on a project management approach.


Probably the most overlooked area for applying project management best practices is in the arena of donor cultivation and solicitation. Working with development professionals and lay leaders for the past decade, I can attest that the difference between a mediocre fundraiser and a high-producing fundraiser comes down to those who bake in the donor engagement by creating actionable tasks and embedding them in their schedule.

Many development professionals maintain a VIP donor pipeline of 75-100 names, ranked by priority (their capacity, their interest in your work and how closely connected you are to them). But that is usually where it ends. Any engagement steps are usually managed in their heads. Their CRM database, which often has a moves management feature to track progress with potential and existing donors, is often ignored completely.

Every VIP donor should have an overall cultivation plan; weekly tasks are required to move those relationships along. Those tasks should be put into your calendar like any other campaign task. Need an introduction through someone? Put that on your calendar. Need to schedule an appointment for coffee? Put it on your calendar. Once these tasks are done, check them off your list.


There are plenty of tools out there that allow you to create projects and tasks, make assignments and give deadlines. If you tried and failed to implement them, it is not usually the fault of the platform. You simply need to create some new habits that make these tools valuable to you and your organization.

Start with a modest project before trying to implement a project management system for your entire campaign year. Have a crowdfunding event coming up? Use project management to define goals, create projects for the campaign, fill in tasks, make assignments and plug in deadlines.

When you get a taste of the efficiency, the transparency, the accountability, the camaraderie and of course, the campaign results, you can be sure that you will begin rolling it out across your entire campaign and your organization as a whole.

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