Agile Methodologies Help Tranform a NonprofitBy Guest Author Print
This nonprofit transformed its business practice, implemented a new case management system and adopted a new business process—all with minimal disruption.
By John O. Saunders
Most nonprofits are interested in process improvements that will better enable them to accomplish their respective missions. However, major change can be intimidating and complicated to implement, especially if the organization isn’t quite sure what it needs to do differently or lacks the expertise to make it happen across the organization.
As a senior program manager with AIM Consulting, I had the opportunity to assist a nonprofit with a major business transformation using agile methodologies. The nonprofit is an endowed charitable organization whose mission is to reduce or eliminate the need for foster care through direct services to children at risk of abuse or neglect.
To achieve their strategic goals, the organization wanted to do two things: overhaul their entire practice and implement new technology that would enable social workers to better manage their cases.
Initially, the nonprofit treated each goal as its own project and ran them simultaneously under separate project managers. They started the practice redesign by hiring a consulting company to create a new practice model—a narrative document that describes the goals and values of the organization and how they go about achieving their mission.
These early efforts proved frustrating. The people who were most familiar with the organization were involved only sporadically in the process, and there were prolonged delays. The practice model was created through a waterfall-like process of conducting interviews, drafting, redrafting and editing.
When the document was finally completed, it didn’t reflect the organization’s view of itself. After weeks and months with no results, the nonprofit's leadership knew they needed help.
Realizing that they needed expertise in program and project management, the nonprofit turned to AIM Consulting. I was brought into the organization as an expert with 30 years of experience building and managing programs for companies of all types.
The nonprofit hadn’t considered using agile methodologies, but a lot of techniques under the umbrella of agile were well-suited to the problems it was struggling to solve.
Agile is project methodology typically used in software development. It was conceived as an alternative to waterfall methodology, a step-by-step process that relies heavily on documentation and has a long wait before a final product is delivered.
In contrast, Agile stresses frequent delivery of “working software” through an iterative looping process of one-to-four-week increments called “sprints”. Agile emphasizes collaboration and transparency, meaning that development teams and stakeholders work closely together so that everyone knows how the project is progressing and can collaborate quickly on changing needs.
Agile is especially applicable for big, thorny projects with unclear outcomes that are subject to change as new business needs are discovered.
Although the nonprofit was not developing software, it was developing their business—redefining all their offerings and operations and implementing new tools to better serve children and families. This was a herculean undertaking that could only be successful through a disciplined approach to program and project management.
My first task was to create a program charter that outlined the goals and broke down the total quantity of effort into three major streams of activity: redefining the practice, selecting and implementing a new case management system and preparing the organization for widespread change. Accomplishing all three would be an interdisciplinary effort requiring participation from social services, research and IT, with more than 50 resources across the organization participating over a period of 18 months. The three streams of activity were broken down into 17 projects, most with specific deliverables, such as a new practice model.
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