Capacity Building

Ten Clues Your Project is in Trouble

By | Capacity Building, Risk Management

Ten Clues Your Project is in Trouble

Payson Hall

Catalysis Group, Inc.

[email protected]


If business projects are part of your life, you know that many projects fail to live up to their potential.  Some projects exceed their schedule or budget targets or fail to deliver everything initially promised.  Still other projects simply fail altogether.  Some project challenges can be avoided or mitigated but first we must recognize there is a problem.

This essay lists ten statements that suggest your project might be in trouble and explores why and what you might do to avoid catastrophe.  If you hear these phrases in your project world, pay attention.


  • “This project is too important to fail.”
    Often the response to concerns expressed about some important part of the project, this statement generally sends the message that “negative thinking” is unacceptable.  This is a dangerous fallacy…  Any project, no matter how important, can fail.
    Probably the single most dangerous project management attitude is one that denies failure is a possibility.  Giving the team permission to identifying potential problems early and making plans to address them increases the likelihood of project success.Team members must be encouraged to voice issues and concerns, not reprimanded for “negative thinking”.


  • “Everyone knows that this budget is unrealistic, just don’t tell the sponsor.”
    A project is not a project unless it has a “sponsor”, the person in your organization that funds the effort and ultimately believes that the value of a project is worth the cost.  Sometimes a misguided project manager comes to believe that he or she is a better judge of the client’s needs than the client.  When this occurs, new information suggesting that the initial budget cannot be achieved is ignored or suppressed to avoid “upsetting the sponsor.”  This goes beyond misguided to unethical if you put yourself in the sponsor’s shoes:
    Imagine that you provide a contractor with detailed blueprints for your dream house, a plot of land, and a fixed budget that you both agree to at the beginning of the construction project (your entire life’s savings).  Three months into the project, the contractor realizes that there isn’t enough money to complete the project – When do you want to know?  As soon as possible!  You won’t be happy, but you need timely information to deal with the situation.  Spending all of your money for half of a house denies you the chance to make informed decisions about reducing the scope of the house or postponing parts of the construction, or perhaps canceling the project to cut your losses.Good project managers remember that the project belongs to the sponsor.  If the best information available says the budget is insufficient, this should result in a prompt meeting with the sponsor to discuss alternatives.


  • “This is going to be a real stretch and lots of long hours over the next year, but if we work hard enough we might pull it off.”
    This is really related to statement number 2 (unrealistic budget), although it sounds like the person speaking, usually the project manager, is not admitting to him or herself that there really isn’t enough resource or time allocated to get the work done (this is called “being in denial”).        This statement usually precedes confusion and overtime, is usually followed by frustration and blaming, and almost never followed by a successful project.  As a rule, if a credible schedule can’t be developed at the start of a project with the staff assigned working full time, it’s pretty safe to say that the project will not be accomplished on time and within budget.  Planning on “Going to the whip” and over-committing the project team from the start of the project usually leads to one or more of the following:
  1. Morale Problems
  2. Personnel Turnover
  3. Failure to achieve the goals of the project as scheduled, scoped and staffed


  • “Aaarg! The Network is down again!”
    K., we have all heard this, or something similar (“the copy machine is broken”, “the truck won’t start”, “the parts aren’t in stock”, etc.) from time to time…  Murphy is an honorary member of every project team.  The point is that project teams require tools and support to do their work efficiently and effectively.  The tools may consist of hardware or equipment and support may be composed of the people needed to maintain those tools and assist the team with their use.  If the tools and support are an afterthought, or insufficient resources are allocated to provide them, the project is in trouble.  Many project plans make unrealistic assumptions about the productivity of the project team from the beginning.  Productivity rapidly drops to zero when necessary tools and support are unavailable or unreliable.Project budgets should include procurement and support of the tools and infrastructure required to perform project work.


  • “We can fix that during the next phase of the effort…”
    Hearing this is usually a sign that the schedule is in trouble, and that someone is about to declare a phase of the project “complete”, whether it is complete or not.  Consider also the word “fix” which suggests that something is broken.  While there are occasions when it might be prudent to delay correcting defects immediately, it isn’t prudent nearly as often as it is suggested.  Common sense tells us that it is cheaper and faster to fix an error in the blueprint with a pencil than to move a misplaced foundation with a jackhammer. Delay in fixing obvious problems is frequently short sighted, since the correction will usually take more time and resources later and may affect the quality of the final product.  Typically, after you hear this phrase several times on a project, the team will usually begin to reply under their breath “There is never time to do it right, but always time to do it twice.”  This response speaks volumes about the morale problems and lack of cohesiveness that this tactic can create on a project along with schedule and cost overruns. Project phase checkpoints should be defined in terms of clear and unambiguous completion criteria that measure the quality of the work products created against an objective standard.


  • “Have they found a replacement for the Project Manager yet?”
    This can suggest disaster for several reasons:
    First, good project managers are hard to find, but instrumental to project success.  The project manager is like a pilot – steering the effort toward completion.  If the project manager is missing, who is flying the plane?  The project manager should have a back-up ready to keep things on course should the project manager be hit by a truck, win the lottery, or (heaven forbid) simply get sick and miss a week or two.  No significant amount of time should pass on a project without a Project Manager at the helm.
    A second consideration when the project manager is missing is “Why?”.  When a project is in trouble, the project manager is usually one of the first to know.  If the project manager doesn’t have the skills or can’t get the support from the sponsor to resolve the situation, he or she will sometimes strap on a parachute and jump.  Whenever a project loses a project manager in the middle, it’s reasonable to worry about his or her motivation for leaving.
    Finally, if team members feel they have to periodically ASK if there is a project manager, it suggests pretty terrible project communication.Projects should always have a designated project manager.  The identity, role and responsibilities of this person should be clear and unambiguous to the project team.


  • “Here’s the last spec we published, but you must understand this is an evolutionary process… the spec will never be completely up-to-date.”
    This one can seem subtle to some people, but it can suggest a real problem if you think about it.  Most projects (high tech, low tech, no tech) end up discovering omissions and errors as they go forward.  These must be addressed as they are detected… it is silly to assume that everything can be anticipated.  The problem suggested by this phrase is that it appears our speaker has given up TRYING to do define the end product up front or keep the specification current.  When we stop trying to build and maintain reliable specifications or descriptions of our work products, we lose control over the definition of the final products and the costs and schedule required to build them.


  • “We’ve really been in a crunch till now, but I think this new [tool, method, person] will get us caught up.”
    This statement suggests what is called “magical thinking”.  With the right magical ingredient, everything will be all right.
    Project managers whose projects are behind and would rather believe in magic than face the facts frequently fall prey to consultants or tool vendors who offer enticingly easy answers to difficult problems.  Unfortunately, someone occasionally finds a tool or expert or method that seems to save the day for a project, which propagates the myth that there is a tool/method/expert that will save any project if you look hard enough.  If you can’t describe a credible way to accomplish the project with existing tools, methods, and people – This is a priority risk item that should not be wished away by pointing to a brochure for a product or service with which the team has no experience.
    When projects have been in “crunch” mode for an extended period, what is needed is not a “magical cure” but probably a more mundane review of the current schedule and resource plans and constraints, a review of the work products that are being produced, and an evaluation of the trade-offs that might make sense given the experience to date.Careful evaluation of the current plans and creation of more realistic plans is not as exciting as the miracle cure, but it is almost always more reliable.


  • “I thought we all agreed to change that!”
    Project goals should be clearly defined up front.  Once defined, it is important to track and communicate changes to the definition in a systematic way. This is called “Change control” or “Change Management”.
    When done poorly, change control is a bureaucratic waste of time.
    When it is not done at all, projects rarely deliver what was agreed to, and often require more resources and time than should have been needed in the first place due to the amount of rework that is required to get things to come together. Satisfaction with the end product can also be problematic, because there will probably be several conflicting views about what the end product was supposed to be.
    When change control is done well, proposed changes to the project’s work products are evaluated for overall impact to the project’s schedule, scope and resources. If a change is approved, it is clearly and quickly communicated to the team to minimize rework.Effective change management is essential to project success.


  • “Two months! That task can’t possibly take two months!  I’ll estimate five weeks will be enough.”
    Have you ever noticed the paradox suggested when a project manager says, “Mary, you are the best qualified specialist I have for this part of the effort. Give me your best estimate regarding how long it will take.” Then in the next breath, argues with the answer?
    While some of this is due to the limited training most people have regarding how to build and validate estimates.  Much of it goes back to magical thinking.  We would all like to think that just saying something makes it true, unfortunately this is rarely the case. Second-guessing estimates is frequently one of the most destructive things that a project manager can do, because it undermines the commitment of the team and the credibility of the schedule.
    The people doing the work must be involved in the creation of estimates for their work.  If the people doing the work don’t believe in the estimates, estimates become just numbers and dates on paper and will have little bearing on performance or reality.
    This is NOT to say that it is not reasonable to discuss the rationale of estimates with the estimators.  It should always be reasonable to say:
    “Mary, let’s talk about the scope of the work as you see it to make sure we both understand and agree what must be done.”
    “Mary, let’s review your assumptions about the resources required to do this work, are there any additional resources I could obtain that would help you do the job more quickly?”
    “Mary, what assumptions are you making about the work that are driving your estimates?  Let’s make sure we agree on the environment in which the work will be done and the resources available.”
    The final say needs to rest with the person you trust to do the work, or else what you are saying is that you don’t trust them to do the work… so you must have the wrong person! Estimates should be made by people competent to perform the work.



If you must fail, try to find a new and creative way to fail.  Don’t fall prey to these clichés.

Defining, planning and managing projects takes skills that require time to learn, and practice to master.  It isn’t hard to fail… failure is easy.  Remember that most projects involve creation of a product or service, and creation is always a difficult task because it involves trying to predict the future and manage to that prediction.  The key to success is to realize that your predictions will not always be right, and to deal with reality as it unfolds.  There is an old Scandinavian proverb that says: “When the terrain and your map disagree, believe the terrain!”  Effective project management avoids or minimizes most of the situations described above by encouraging effective and timely communication, acknowledging that plans are educated guesses about the future that will not always be correct, and trying to work with the project team to deal with reality as it is revealed rather than trying to deny it as long as possible.



Data Privacy and Protection Laws: Wading into the Alphabet Soup

By | Legal and Compliance, Nonprofit News

By Corinne Gartner and Kaitlyn Saberin

If you follow the news at all, you’ll be aware that data privacy and protection are hot topics. The daily headlines might catch your eye on a personal level, and have you wondering how the businesses that you interact with as a consumer are handling your personal information. Should data privacy and protection issues also concern you in your capacity as an executive or volunteer leader of a nonprofit organization operating in California, though? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.

While California’s newest and most high profile privacy law, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – which became effective on January 1, 2020 – generally only applies to for-profit entities1, there are a host of other laws and regulations that don’t exclude nonprofits from their scope, and that could potentially apply to your organization. For example:

  • Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): There is a misconception in the US that the GDPR, which became effective on May 25, 2018, only applies to companies located in the European Union (EU). In fact, this far-reaching regulation potentially applies to any organization (including US-based nonprofit organizations) that offers goods and/or provides services to EU-based individuals, or that monitors the behavior of EU-based individuals (including through the use of some types of “cookies,” web analytics, and tracking technologies). Merely having a website that is accessible by users within the EU does not necessarily subject a US-based organization to GDPR compliance obligations, but if, through its website, the US-based organization intends to draw in customers from the EU, the GDPR might be triggered.
  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA): This US law applies to operators of commercial websites and other online services, including mobile apps, that collect personal information from their users if the website/service is directed at children under 13, or if the operator has actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under 13. A website, app, or service operator that is subject to COPPA must, among other things, post a privacy policy that describes its practices for collecting, using, and disclosing personal information (as defined in the COPPA Rule) from children. Although nonprofits are generally considered to not be subject to COPPA (unless they are providing commercial services) it is recommended that, as a best practice, nonprofit organizations provide the privacy policy notices and COPPA protections to child visitors of their websites because of the potential liability that could result from handling/mishandling minors’ data.
  • California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA): This California law requires operators of online services and mobile applications that collect personally identifiable information of California residents online to conspicuously post a privacy policy on their website/online service and to follow the policy. The privacy policy must include certain disclosures and consumer rights set forth under California law.
  • Privacy Rights for California Minors in the Digital World: This California law, which applies to operators of internet web sites, online services, online applications, or mobile applications directed to minors (i.e., California residents under 18), gives minors the right to request that the information they posted on the website/service/app as a minor be taken down, and also provides some restrictions on advertising/marketing to these minors.
  • Health Information Privacy Laws: The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, and their implementing regulations (collectively, HIPAA) provide protections for health information held by “covered entities” and “business associates” (as such terms are defined under HIPAA), and give patients an array of rights with respect to that information. At the state level, the California Confidentiality of Medical Information Act adds to the federal protections provided by HIPAA and imposes additional obligations on certain health care providers and other persons/entities that interact with patient medical information.

With an upward trend in state-specific laws governing data privacy and protection, and with state and federal enforcement action in this area on the rise, all California nonprofits are encouraged to wade into the “alphabet soup” of data privacy and protection laws and regulations, so they know which ones apply, and how to comply.

1 Nonprofits may be subject to certain obligations under the CCPA if they have for-profit affiliates who are covered by the CCPA.


The authors, attorneys at Delfino Madden O’Malley Coyle & Koewler (located at 500 Capitol Mall, Suite 1550, Sacramento), practice in the firm’s nonprofit and tax-exempt organization practice group, and serve as both general and special counsel to a wide variety of nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations on issues ranging from entity formation and obtaining tax-exempt status, to corporate governance and operations/compliance matters (including privacy issues), to restructuring, mergers, and other complex business transactions. They will give a presentation on data privacy and protection issues for nonprofits at the 2020 What IF Conference.

Communication During a Crisis: A Cautionary Tale

By | Organizational Management

Once upon a time about twenty years ago, our then-current Internet Service Provider (ISP) was purchased.  All servers & web domains were transferred from the previous provider to the new owners in a poorly executed “Big Bang” migration – everyone got moved over a single weekend.

Twenty days later, the smoke still hadn’t cleared.  Our web site was crippled, and e-mail service was sporadic.  Most of the customers acquired by the purchase either found a new provider or were looking by the third week.

This is the equivalent of buying an expensive ice sculpture and leaving it in the summer sun… the money invested melts away as your disillusioned customers rush toward the exits.

There are two interesting aspects to this fiasco.

  • The technical debacle – A tale of arrogance and ignorance, trying to convert tens of thousands of domains all at once with what appeared to be little planning, prototyping, or testing; changing the help ticket application and moving the support telephone lines on the same day they migrated all customer domains.  The outcome was sadly predictable: the migration created a huge smoking crater where customer web sites used to be.  As customers realized they had problems and tried to contact the provider they discovered the help ticket and telephone systems were both offline.  This exacerbated the second part of the disaster…
  • Botched communication – Before and during the crisis.

I want to focus on the troubled communication aspects of this tragedy to see what can be learned and applied to YOUR next disaster to make it less disastrous.

The vendor notified customers via e-mail a month before the move that the migration was going to occur and encouraged users to back up their sites and data.  They also cautioned users that any changes made after backups were taken on March 15th would be lost when systems were restored on April 15th.

Setting aside that a 30-day delay between backup and restore is criminally poor service in the 21st century, I received the e-mail warnings prior to the conversion only because my personal e-mail account is registered as our domain administrator.  Several thousand other customers never got this message.  Some because they only check their administrator e-mail when they are actively engaged in site administration.  Others apparently have non-technical types monitor the admin accounts who received the message but didn’t understand its significance.  Bottom line: many businesses lost 30 days of critical customer data – not just web pages, but databases with purchase and payment information.

Take away points:

  1. Keep people informed about what you plan to do
  2. Assure they are getting the message
  3. Check to see if they understand the message

At the time of the conversion, the vendor established a web page to communicate migration status.  Good idea.

Unfortunately, the page was hard to find.  Bad idea.  People who identified problems days after the conversion and tried to enter trouble tickets discovered what looked like a “secret” site that seemed to be hiding the fact that many of their problems were already known and still unresolved.

The migration status web page was updated every few hours on the first day, then once per shift for a day or so, then once per day, then not at all.  The last entry was April 22nd, a week after the conversion and two weeks before I wrote this essay.  The first entry triumphantly proclaimed the success of the migration noting a few “minor issues”.  Later updates acknowledged more serious problems, and asked customers to be patient.  Still later entries chided users for some of the ways that they had coded web pages and applications, telling them “if they had done things ‘correctly’ many of the problems would not have occurred”.  Starting and then stopping communication while problems persisted?  Terrible Idea.

Take away points:

  1. Set up and publicize a central source of status information
  2. Make sure that status is easy to find and available to everyone who might care.
  3. Keep status current, even if you have no new information.  Better a message every two hours saying “no change” than silence
  4. Establish a gatekeeper or editor for all broadcast communication that is responsible for assuring that content is balanced and not defensive.  Explaining what is happening and why can be helpful.  Blaming your victims for your mistakes?  A truly AWFUL idea.

I logged five trouble tickets and never received a reply.  On the rare occasions when the support phone number worked, I left voice messages, but I never received a call back.  Five days after the migration, a notice was posted to the status page reporting that all problems were known and asking customers to please stop submitting trouble tickets.

Take away points:

  1. Positive acknowledgment of all incoming communication is essential.  One reason for the flood of trouble tickets that overwhelmed the provider’s support staff was people reporting the same problem several times because they had not received a response.  Customers were doubly frustrated because they felt their issues were not being heard or addressed.
  2. Precision is vital if you must broadcast a response.  It is arrogant to say (and dismaying to hear), “We know about all problems”.  Much better to say, “We are aware of problems X, Y and Z and will notify you when they have been resolved”

The best communication rule I’ve heard is: “The burden of communication lies with the party that has the most to lose.”  Everyone had a lot to lose in a crisis situation.  The ISP likely failed as a consequence of their poor migration (karma).  Customers’ operations were disrupted and many lost business, data and money.  Dozens of small operations were mortally wounded as a consequence and had to cease operation.

Clearly, better planning and testing could have prevented much of this disaster.  Better communication might have mitigated some of the consequences.  Informed customers might have been better prepared and more patient once they understood the nature of the problems and could see progress addressing them.  Instead, most gave up in frustration.

Article by Payson Hall, PMP®,  consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento.  Payson is bringing a series of project management classes to Impact Foundry this fall, beginning with Project management for Nonprofits: Reading the Tea Leaves on August 15th.

The 2019 Grantseeking Report

By | Fundraising

This document, The 2019 State of Grantseeking™ Report, is the result of the 17th informal survey of organizations conducted by GrantStation to help illustrate the current state of grantseeking. The primary objectives of the State of Grantseeking Report are to help you both understand the recent trends in grantseeking and identify benchmarks to help you measure your own success in the field. As a leader in the nonprofit sector, part of your job is to know about the latest trends and to apply lessons learned by others to the strategic development of your organization.


The 2019 State of Grantseeking Report_0

The Cheeseburger Talk: Non-Profit Edition

By | Organizational Management

One of the most important meetings in the life of a project should happen at the project’s inception.  I call it the “Cheeseburger Talk”.  This essay describes the purpose and process of the cheeseburger talk so that you can consider the trade-offs between your cholesterol levels and project orientation and definition on your project.

Anyone who’s engaged in marketing that involved schmoozy lunches with clients or donors knows the first rule of the business lunch: Never eat messy food.  No ribs, no spaghetti, no drippy cheeseburgers.  The reason?  It’s difficult to maintain an aura of dignity and propriety when you have ketchup on your chin.  The cheeseburger talk is designed to capitalize on this effect.

Before we go on, let’s define what we mean by a “project”.  A project is a temporary undertaking (it has a beginning and an end), to accomplish a specific purpose (creation of a product or service or achieving a specific outcome), within defined boundaries of resources (people and funding).  Examples of projects in a non-profit context might include:

  • putting on a conference,
  • writing a grant proposal,
  • performing the work described by a grant, or
  • moving operations from one facility to another.

At the start of a project there is an important discussion that must occur between the project’s sponsor and the project manager.  To be effective, this discussion needs to be relaxed and candid.  Getting the sponsor away from the workplace, away from the trappings of his or her office (the credenza, secretary, and that BIG desk) to engage in one-on-one dialog is essential.  If you can get a little sauce on the sponsor’s hands or chin, you get extra credit.

The relationship between the project manager and the sponsor is special.  The sponsor has a business problem to solve or an objective to accomplish and controls the organization’s priorities and resources.  The project manager’s job is to work with the sponsor to define a project that addresses the business need and look for a credible way to perform that project within the schedule and resource targets of the sponsor.  The project manager is there to support the sponsor’s decision making as well as to define, plan and manage the project.  To do this well, it is essential that the project manager understand the sponsor’s goals.  In my experience, the best way to discover what someone wants is to ask.

Some of the questions that must be asked may be perceived as insubordinate or challenging of the sponsor’s authority or wisdom… particularly if they are initially asked in a public forum or in an environment that encourages the sponsor to wear their “boss” hat.  The intention of the cheeseburger talk (and the cheeseburger questions below) is to help the project manager get to the heart of the sponsor’s motivation and to lay a foundation for defining and running the project.  My preference is to approach the questions the first time in a casual setting.

Here is a cheat sheet of what I think are good questions for your cheeseburger talk:


  • What do you want?
  • Why is our organization interesting in doing this?
  • What would a successful project produce?
  • How will we know we are done and successful?
  • What is the successful project worth to our organization?


  • When do you want it?
  • Why then?
  • What is the business impact of delivery a day or a week or a month later than your target?
  • Is there value in early delivery?


  • What resources are you willing to commit to the project (people, equipment, materials, facilities, $$$)?
  • What is the source of this budget?
  • When will the resources be available?


  • How did we come to be here?
  • Why haven’t we done this sooner?
  • Has this project (or anything like it) been attempted before?  What happened?


  • As the project progresses, what status information would you like to receive?
  • How often do you want regular status?
  • How do I contact you if I have questions or issues with the project?
  • Who is authorized to change the schedule, scope and resources of the project once we have agreed to a written project definition?
  • If at any time I have concerns about the viability of the project, when do you want to know?

These few questions make a great agenda for lunch.  They can be covered in casual conversation to provide the project context and history as well as the schedule, scope and resource boundaries.  The questions may seem simple, but it is surprising how many project managers I work with who could not answer these “simple” questions for projects that have been underway for months.

This conversation sets a tone for the project.  It establishes a foundation for the project manager prior to project definition and it reinforces the sponsor/project manager relationship.  All this and a cheeseburger too… and the sponsor should probably pick up the tab… it doesn’t get any better than this.

Article by Payson Hall.  Payson Hall is a Consulting Project Manager with Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento.  He is scheduled to teach a 3-day Project Management Course at Impact Foundry June 13-15.  For more information click here!

A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems

By | Organizational Management

Donors are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. You need them to survive. But how do you manage all the details about their giving along with all the personal details that are key to maintaining successful relationships without breaking your bank? This report looks at a number of low-cost donor management systems designed to do exactly that.

A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems (1)
A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems

Saving Philanthropy: Resources to Results

By | Evaluation

SAVING PHILANTHROPY: RESOURCES TO RESULTS™ profiles diverse social service organizations that have gained national attention for the measurable outcomes they achieve, and highlights the roles that internal management and forward thinking funders play in the process.  SAVING PHILANTHROPY lays out in clear and digestible language the key components of a managing to outcomes strategy, and utilizes interviews with leading voices in the sector to explore how to foster a managing to outcomes culture

Is corporate sponsorship income taxable or a charitable contribution?

By | Legal and Compliance

The IRS will look at the payment made to a nonprofit by a corporate sponsor and decide whether the payment is a tax-free gift (charitable contribution) or a taxable advertising payment. The IRS focuses on whether the corporate sponsor has any expectation that it will receive a “substantial return benefit” for its payment. If so, the payment will result in taxable income for the nonprofit that is reported on IRS Form 990-T. (See rules described in Internal Revenue Code, Section 513(i).)

View more details from the National Council of Nonprofits.


Posted 8/1/2018