ASAE Annual Meeting

Flipping Traditional Project Management to Fit the Association Model

By Association Adviser staff • August 27, 2020

Project management in the association world is different from the for-profit world. Crystal Stone, M.Ed., CAE, PMP of Bostrom led attendees through a crash course on what project management is and how to effectively manage a project for an association.
First, it’s important to differentiate a project from an ongoing operation: A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. It’s made up of several deliverables, any unique and verifiable products or results required to complete a process, phase or product. Projects can be intangible, such as a vision statement, or tangible, such as a website or event. Projects have a definite beginning and end.
Operations management is the continuous production of products or services. Operations optimize an organization’s resources to efficiently meet customer demands. There is no end date to operations.

Five Phases of Project Management

There are five basic phases of project management:


This is when you and your team should develop the project’s charter. Lay out the scope of the project and all required stakeholders that must agree on expectations for the project. Create a basic schedule for the project and know how all stakeholders will be held accountable for their role in completing it.


Lay out a detailed plan for what needs to be completed and when. Create a WBS: Work Breakdown Schedule. This is a fancy name for what needs to be done and who will do it. Know who is responsible for each task. Build in plenty of cushion or buffer for deadlines. For example, if an item is due on the 15th of the month, set an “artificial” (but one you follow) deadline of the 5th. People get sick, volunteers have day jobs to prioritize, and adding in a buffer to your schedule will help ensure critical components are still completed on time. In traditional project management, timelines are often created from a starting point and move forward. But in non-profits, timelines often start with an end date and work backward. Know your budget and how you will control it. What resources – human, monetary, knowledge, facilities – will be required?
Unfortunately we live in a “ready, fire, aim” culture, especially with stakeholders or committees wanting to see action right away on a project they’re excited about. The main focus of association project management is getting the end result you need by planning properly at the beginning. Such an approach saves time, energy, resources, and procurement.


As you work through your plan, keep tabs on your budget and stay focused on the end goal. Consider: What will happen if you don’t complete the project? What will your response be if the end result is not what you anticipated? How will you respond if the goal cannot be achieved? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you and your team stay motivated and focused. The goal, as with nearly every project, for-profit or not, is to be on time and under budget.

Monitoring and Control

Communicate profusely. Engage in a lot of friendly follow-ups. And if someone stops responding or finds themselves in over their head, have a back-up plan for how you can complete that step anyway.
In associations, the scope and end result can sometimes be “squishy,” meaning that the goal or course of the project may change as your board or volunteers learn more and gain a better understanding of what they want the end result to be. As long as you consider the risks mentioned above and stay within budget, it’s okay to slightly alter the scope or goal. You might discover that you don’t need a new full-fledged education program, but simply a webinar or meeting series. Conversely, when updating a communications piece, you might realize your whole brand needs an overhaul.
Consider using a project management tool to help you and your team. Asana, Wrike, Huddle,, Basecamp, Smartsheet or plain Excel spreadsheets are all useful tools.


All projects have an end date. As you finish a project, make sure all stakeholders still hold the same expectations for the end result. Ensure you’re still within your budget. Make sure all volunteers feel appreciated and can see that their work on the project was useful. Project management is a behavior as well as a process. Closing out the project should include something akin to a debriefing for everyone involved.
Project management is all about planning ahead to get ahead. Keep the above advice in mind and you’ll find managing an association project is, well, manageable!