When I met Jeanne in a small café in Hackney, I was immediately thrown off balance. I had expected beads and hippy braids; I was met instead by a small, neat woman, formidable in her efficiency as she secured us a table by the window.
Jeanne is freelance project management consultant, currently working for an NGO based in Ethiopia. Her work has taken her from Russia to Sri Lanka, and from Mexico to Uganda. At the moment she is helping with a series of projects to provide school materials across a wider range of rural areas. In her ‘spare time’ (and only somebody like Jeanne would have spare time on top of everything else that she does) she volunteers her time as a project management trainer, helping local NGOs to develop strategies for dealing with the particularly challenges of managing projects successfully in the aid sector.
NGO project management is not an obvious career choice, I observe.
Jeanne laughs. “Not many people are in it for the money,” she says. “You simply can’t compare the corporate paycheck with the not-for-profit sector. But when it comes to job satisfaction … “ She shrugs. “I worked as a business consultant and programme manager for thirteen years in the financial sector, and it drove me nuts. I need to be around the people that I’m helping and see the results of the projects first-hand. It certainly isn’t the easiest job in the world, but the feeling that I can use project management to make a difference is incalculable.”
Overseas volunteer work is a rapidly growing sector, but one perhaps more often associated with digging wells and saving turtles than training up project managers. I ask Jeanne why the local NGO needed a programme manager from the UK to come and tell them how to manage their projects.
“Well, firstly, that is precisely what we do not do.” She thinks for a moment, and then says slowly, “We are there to help the NGOs create a framework and a strategy for dealing with projects, not to tell them how their projects should be run. And secondly, what we bring is knowledge and experience in the highly-developed project management methodologies that have been developed particularly in Europe and America since the advent of the IT industry. This project management expertise can be brought to bear on the local issues that NGOs face, and the specific challenges associated with these issues.”
And the specific challenges facing NGO project managers? I ask Jeanne if she can expand on this.
“NGO project managers have to be capable in disaster management also.” She catches my eye and laughs. “Not that business leaders don’t have their own disasters to manage, but the stakes are different. If you’re providing fresh water for a region of mountain villages, and a flash flood or an earthquake destroys all of your work, and all of the village housing also, you have to be there, figuring out what the problems are and what you are going to do about them.” She snaps her fingers. “Like that. You have to answer the questions, what outcome do we want? What do we need to do to achieve that outcome? Then you do it.”
After checking with the programme manager, I suggest. Jeanne shakes her head. “In a way, the NGO project manager functions as a programme manager also. There isn’t the luxury of batting ideas back and forth. You have a need, you have a budget and you’re always pushed to the wire to get results in time.” She grins. “I wouldn’t go back to financial management for anything.”
Aware of the pressure on Jeanne’s time, I promise to draw the interview to a close with just one final question. In all of the heavy responsibilities and exhilarating achievements of the NGO project manager, what is the most rewarding aspect of her job?”
She ponders this for some time, and then says, “Disaster management can be an intensely rewarding experience, project management at its most extreme. But ultimately what is most important is training up the people on the ground to manage projects and programmes as successfully as possible. It’s the old story of the fish and the fishing-nets, and the NGO project manager has to provide both. With my disaster management hat on I provide the fish to eat – health clinics, temporary schooling, emergency shelter for refugees – but with my project management training hat on I provide the fishing-nets that will enable local project managers to develop the structures and capabilities to manage projects and programmes independently of outside help.”
Since this article first appeared on our blog in 2010, a new project management qualification has been launched by PM4NGOs (Project Management for Non-Governmental Organisations). PM4NGOs aims to optimize the investments in international NGO projects by enabling project managers to be reflective and professional practitioners who learn, operate and adapt effectively in complex project environments.
The new qualification is known as PMDPro (Project Management in Development) and comes with 2 levels of qualification. PMDPro was developed with experts from World Vision, Plan, Path, Oxfam and Islamic Relief, and is aimed at project managers who work in the non-governmental sector responsible for development, relief and conservation projects.
During 2014, West Africa has suffered a major health problem with the Ebola epidemic. Practitioners working in the field need the skills to help them manage the work necessary to make a difference. PM4NGOs is one initiative which is trying to make a difference. I welcome its attempt to bring project management skills to developing countries and I wish it every success.