The Need for Project Managers in Non-Governmental Organizations

The Uniqueness that is an NGO

Successful project managers and their teams in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are true heroes, delivering benefits to external stakeholders whose lives may very well depend on them. Here, we look at what they are, what they do and how they are unique.

What is an NGO?

Is an NGO just any organization that is not part of a government, as the name might imply? No, not exactly. According to Wikipedia:

“The term non-governmental organization (NGO) normally refers to organizations that are neither a part of a government nor conventional for-profit businesses. Usually set up by ordinary citizens, NGOs may be funded by governments, foundations or businesses.”

By this definition, for-profit businesses, while non-governmental, are not NGOs. NGOs are normally set up for reasons other than profit, and funding typically comes from sources other than traditional “investors.”

The World Bank classifies NGOs as either operational NGOs, which are primarily concerned with development projects, or advocacy NGOs, which are primarily concerned with promoting a cause.

An expanded definition can be found at, along with useful resources.

Bless the NGOs

Although usually out of sight and out of mind, one doesn’t really have to look far to see their work. They are involved in dozens of critical needs, including human rights, fighting human trafficking, refugee matters, providing life’s necessities such as clean water in regions where they are essentially non-existent, women’s issues, disaster relief, education, sustainable development, conflict resolution and much more. For every widely known example like the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders there are many dozens of other unsung soldiers.

Is NGO Project Management Unique?

A common NGO mission is to support a region’s social and economic growth priorities. These efforts are said to be in the “development sector.” Organizations such as PM4NGOs, APMG International and the Project Management Institute provide special emphasis for NGOs.

The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge® (PMBOK® Guide) prepares project managers for projects in any type of organization. Other organizations are more specific to NGOs. PM4NGOs states their organization’s mission as “advancement in the Project Management skills of individuals and organisations throughout the world.” They continue:

“Development projects, large and small, depend on effective project management to gain maximum value from every penny donated by individuals and donor organisations.”

PM4NGOs offers its “Guide to the PMD Pro,” which has been adopted by some NGOs as a standard for development-sector project management. The publication is free to individual members of PMGNOs, and the membership is free of charge.

APMG International, an accrediting organization, also has a certification for NGO project managers. According to its website at

“This certification is seen as an important benchmark for continuous improvement. The scheme was developed by APMG-International in partnership with Project Management for NGOs (PM4NGOs), an organization dedicated to optimizing international project investments and improving professional project management skills in the development sector.”

Note the common theme of maximizing return on investment.

The Project Management Institute supports NGOs in various ways. The PMI Educational Foundation can direct practitioners to training and scholarship opportunities.

Another valuable NGO project manager resource can be found at LinkedIn under Genome Training and Consulting > Services > Project Management for NGOs.

NGO Project Managers Speak Out

Samantha Marie Haynes, who received her Master of Public Administration with a concentration in Social Enterprise and Non-Profit Management at the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School in Washington, D.C. in May 2014, highlights the critical need for meaningful metrics for NGO projects:

“I think an evaluation needs to start with a logic model. Every project/program needs to have a logic model so you can know what you’re measuring. Then you need to do some sort of pre-implementation testing, run the program and subsequently do post-testing. And yes, it involves knowing your metrics but if you sit down and design a logic model your metrics will come to you. You need someone that can see the big picture from start to finish rather than have people just implementing the program and not thinking outside of delivering direct services.”

Another NGO project manager who didn’t wish to be identified commented on the project manager selection process. NGO project managers, even more often than others, are specially qualified to address a particular problem area. Too often, she said, the selection is based entirely on domain expertise while critical project management skills are lacking, often with problematic or even disastrous results. It’s understandable that this happens somewhat naturally; however, the governance process must change in many NGOs to recognize the fact that domain expertise alone is not sufficient.

This issue can only be addressed either by training the domain experts (who may very well not be interested in learning project management skills) or employing trained project managers who know how to complement the domain expert as an indispensable stakeholder while providing commensurate reward and recognition.

NGOs Have the Same Project Issues with Unique Twists

Return on investment (ROI) is, or should be, on the mind of every project manager in order to “gain maximum value from every penny donated by individuals and donor organisations.” Many project managers are internally funded. Determining ROI may be challenging, but it should be easier done from within one’s organization than from outside. NGOs, almost by definition, are externally funded, and Haynes’ admonishment for actually devising and keeping metrics is clearly vital in order to keep the financial lifeblood flowing.