What I Learned About Project Management From A Failed Volunteer Project

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

I like to start projects. But I don’t always finish them. Let me tell you a story about what I learned from a failed project.

For several years, I have been a volunteer with various university alumni associations. I’ve created budgets. I’ve ran events like organizing a dinner to connect alumni and students interested in the financial industry. Those have gone well. Based on that track record, I felt confident about taking on larger projects.

In 2015, I decided to organize an ambitious project to recruit 100 alumni mentors to support students at the University of Toronto. Several people were interested in the project. I had supporters. I had a plan. There was even a small budget to support the project. I also had some experience with mentorship through my participation in past mentorship programs.

How I Failed In The Mentorship Project

The project started with plenty of enthusiasm in the summer of 2015. I created a tracking spreadsheet to track prospective alumni mentors and their interests. I contacted people in my network and worked with other people. By the spring of 2016, I only had about 15 mentors recruited. Believe me, writing up the project report for the board was not a fun activity.

6 Project Management Lessons I Learned

The project did not achieve the goal as defined in the scope statement: recruit 100 alumni mentors. From that perspective, it was a failure. However, I learned from the experience – even small projects need a robust process and routine to reach success.

1. No Weekly Project Meeting

Most projects have a weekly conference call. There’s a very good reason for that! It makes a big difference in keeping everyone organized. There’s also an incentive to have progress to report on each call. Given this was a virtual team, the support and connection from a regular check in call would also have made a difference.

2. No Standard Operating Procedure

This one is painful to admit because I have covered the value of SOPs on this website (How To Improve Quality With Standard Operating Procedures). In the mentorship project, I could have used SOPs for several activities – outreach, conversion and follow-up.

Keep in mind that you need some data before you can create a SOP. I’m still thinking about the tipping point to determine when it makes sense to create a SOP. If I have to do an activity weekly or monthly and it has significant impact, then it makes sense to create a procedure.

3. Vision and Enthusiasm Make A Big Difference

This is a positive lesson learned from the project. I had a positive vision that attracted interest from association members and volunteers. Why? While universities engage alumni in various ways, fundraising is the most common call to action.

In contrast, asking alumni to volunteer their time and support students was a novel invitation. The challenge was understanding the different levels of interest and connecting those people to the right opportunity.

For added inspiration on this point, check out Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk: Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action.

4. Lack of Milestones

The end goal of the project was clear – recruiting 100 mentors. I did not have clear milestones to mark progress through the project. Looking back now, this could have been done in thirds or quarters (e.g. 25, 50, 75 and 100). Each milestone could then trigger a meeting to assess progress.

5. The “Oh, It’s A Small Project” Assumption

If you read the Project Management Body of Knowledge, there is a vast literature of processes, documents and techniques. It’s a great process for building a nuclear submarine, apartment building or satellite. In smaller projects, that level of detail often feels like overkill.

Unfortunately, I went too far in the other direction – too little process. The lesson? Keep systems and processes in place even with small projects so that you can deliver them on time.

6. Ineffective Delegation

In project management, it’s important to recruit and work with team members. In this project, I could have done a better job with my project team. While I did have a few volunteers and went through some light training with them, there was much more I could have done.

Inspiring volunteers to commit and work on a project is difficult. Yet, I could have done better in this area. I think it would have been better to work with a larger team and assign each team member a smaller task (e.g. recruit 20 team members and ask each of them to recruit 5 alumni).

Question For The Comments:

How have you learned from a failed project? It could be a volunteer project, a current project or something from earlier in your career. I know you have great stories to share!

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned About Project Management From A Failed Volunteer Project

  1. Thanks for the article. One of the key issues on most projects is the lack of risk assessment and management. I think that this could have helped your project. One of the risks is that mentors will not register. Another is that they will not engage with mentees? (is that the right word?). I struggle with the identification of risks as this is almost completely cerebral and imaginative. But in terms of value, it is huge.