Insights | Philosophy | Project Management

Why I wish someone had introduced me to project management before I burnt out as an organizer: 5 project management tactics I’ll never go without

I’ll be the first to say, as an organizer turned consultant, I burned out in my last role. If there was a bingo card for the various tasks that led up to voter engagement events, time spent in the VAN, and end-of-year leadership summits that led to burnout: I would sweep the board. Like most non-profits that prioritize execution over infrastructure, I encountered a lack of accountability from key decision-makers, no real design of how meetings were run, and a shocking absence of curiosity around finding processes and systems out there to support us while we were all running on fumes.

As a result, I found myself surrounded by overwhelmed yet persistent leadership ensuring we meet the organization’s goals coupled with feeling all the guilt of not meeting expectations. As organizers eager to meet the mission of both our leadership and funders, it feels like we’re grasping at straws trying to produce tangible results with no critical infrastructure to solve our problems. We simply were not equipped and had no mental bandwidth to know where to start. It’s easier to dismiss these support structures as consultant-speak and not attached to the real world, but what’s missing from the conversation is how tangible and worthwhile solutions we can offer when used correctly.

I’ve come to find out, with time, the meaningful work we do at DTC boils down to the project management we provide as a service for our clients. I cannot stress how crucial these structures are for the roles our leaders hold in the political arena and the value it adds to the execution of any campaign or project’s goals in the long run. As a previous coalition manager, I wish I had had the wisdom that project management structures bestow in large groups. I have found the tool useful to develop a process that balances the democratic value of coalition while making sure we’re not simply shouting at each other on a sinking ship.

Here are 5 project management tips I wish I’d known then:

1. Get clear on your plan and start drafting.

Oftentimes, incredible conversations happen, but no one writes them down. Roughly, paint a picture of the timeline. Draft an organization or coalition chart with ranking members if it applies. Assign roles and tasks to the appropriate people. These structures set the stage for communicating clarity to all members with a shared goal and will be the cornerstone when moving parts start to feel sticky. They don’t need to be perfect or aesthetically pleasing, but they have to make sense to everyone. At DTC, here are a few examples of the systems we implement:

  • Organization charts
  • Project Timelines or Gantt Charts

2Track actions, decisions and risks: and stay consistent.

Hold your notes as sacred and stay consistent to their skeleton or outline, whether that’s a notes template or a table: use it over and over again. It will serve you throughout the duration of your project. I’ll be dramatic and say these are historical documents you’re producing and you’ll be doing future-you a favor. By the time your project is over or your short-term goals have reached the finish line, it will be valuable to revisit your old documents to complete evaluation and impact reports. Tracking decisions and issues over time will help see where plans went astray, what to pass onto the next group, or where to start if you need to relaunch your campaign.

3. Create a timeline.

We’ve discovered that most problems can be solved with a good old-fashioned visual like a timeline. They give folks a landscape of what project checkpoints are in the queue and, in the meantime, how best to prioritize actions and predict risks accordingly.

To give an example: in coalitions, there are differing levels of capacity organizations can provide and depending on how politically involved they are. Times like election season become almost impossible to demand resources and time from people. This happens every year. We know that. We should plan for it!

4. Identify the people and power dynamics at play.

Possessing the skill to identify the key decision makers, lines of authority, and the political dynamics is indispensable for a project’s success. With so many hands in one bucket it can become overwhelming in coalitions or groups to advance the goals of an issue campaign effectively, but being able to name these elements give clarity and illustrate easier pathways. For example: when someone may hold a stronger relationship with a legislator or connection than someone else.

5Stay accountable and have transparency be your cornerstone.

Be honest when you don’t meet deadlines, or when you’ve had to compromise even when it won’t suit everyone, but be ready to provide reasoning as to why. As you find yourself in the trenches of the work, you might get lost in the sauce. Many times you will have to report to a large group of people, so remember to stay true to the values you set out as a collective and don’t stray from them.

No one’s value is determined by bad project management in a single discrete project, but we believe our organizers are better equipped with these structures in the long run. I know well what it feels like to be underwater planning for campaigns or organizing events, with no real path to success. That means we must acknowledge the way project management can supplement the work and allow for organizers to feel confident in the fruition of their hard labor, and in turn convert that into project victories for all of us.