Online Project Management Software in the Real World
Managing all the dates, documents, tasks and people associated with a project can be daunting, but online project management software can help. We present three case studies of nonprofits who have used packages like Basecamp, Central Desktop and Trac to help manage real projects.
Managing all the dates, documents, tasks, and people associated with nonprofit projects can be a daunting task, especially when the project team isn’t located together in the same office. Online project management software can help. This type of web-based software package allows all of the people who are involved in a project, wherever they are, to find relevant information easily, keep track of tasks and milestones, and see all the files for a project.
But it can be hard to picture how these tools work in real life. In this article, we present three case studies of nonprofits who are using online project management software for different scenarios - from a centralized area for online document review, to an organization-wide repository, to a complex public task list. We take a look at the tools used, benefits, and challenges for these three organizations. Perhaps these case studies will inspire ways that project management software might also be useful for you.
Online Document Review
The Revenue Watch Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the responsible management of oil, gas and mineral resources for the public good, recently redesigned their website. They wanted all the team members working on the redesign – both their staff and the consultants they were working with – to be able to easily access project materials online and track their own progress.
Their consultants suggested using Basecamp, an online hosted project management software package - and it proved to be very helpful. Basecamp allows you to create shared online project spaces where you can upload files, track tasks and milestones, add comments, and collaborate online on simple text documents. The package is straightforward to set up and fairly inexpensive, starting at $24/month with a month’s free trial.
Revenue Watch used the system to upload and share planning documents, site mockups, and meeting notes. The comment feature let them easily discuss the documents online, while the system’s versioning functionality allowed them to see an archive of revisions of each document. They configured the system to automatically send emails to team members when a comment or new revision was added, which they found helpful. However, the navigation through the various comments threads and history wasn’t as intuitive as they would have hoped.
They also had the option of tracking milestones and tasks in Basecamp, but that functionality was less useful for them. They found it difficult to capture all the ongoing tasks in the system, and that the team could appear to be on track with the schedule when in fact they weren’t. As a result, the milestones and tasks in the system were often not kept up to date.
It was helpful, however, to have Basecamp as a straightforward way to share and comment on documents. The system allowed Revenue Watch and their consultant team to effectively collaborate, focusing on the new website rather than the logistics of how to store and find documents.
Centralized Repository for Multiple Projects
The Montana Legal Services Association needs to coordinate many different kinds of projects with team members located all over their large service area. As an organization that provides free legal assistance to low income Montanans, they need to manage everything from their statewide client services program to their call center to their own board meetings.
Other workspaces allow them to easily manage and update the support information that their call center needs, manage their grant due dates, and coordinate their geographically remote staff members. The Central Desktop administrators can define who should see each workspace, and give the appropriate people access to edit or administrate them.
The team started using Central Desktop about six months ago. As an online service, it was fairly straightforward to get started, and they now have 19 staff members and an additional six external team members using the tool. They pay about $50/ month for Montana Legal Services’ desired number of workspaces and users – which has been very cost effective for them.
Because of the rich feature set, they found that it’s important to think through how how the team can best use the tool before rolling it out to team members. They now set up each workspace first with appropriate set of features, which can then guide the team in the appropriate use for each project.
On the other hand, they find that it's sometimes difficult to maneuver through all the information and features. In particular, team members sometimes don't realize that someone else has made a comment – it can be difficult to find the comments in the system, and to set up the system so that you're emailed when comments are made.
In all, Central Desktop has successfully centralized the information needed for each project in a way that’s very useful to both office staff and remote team members.
Public Task List and Forum
May First/ People Link (MFPL) is a membership organization of progressive individuals and groups who use the Internet. It’s critical to them to understand the needs and prioritizes of their members.
About six months ago, they started using Trac, an online open source tool, as a public forum to allow their members to make requests and suggestions. The forum allows members to post almost anything – support issues, requests for new features, suggestions about new services that would be useful, thoughts about conferences MFPL should attend, even or ways to recruit new members to the organization. It functions as large public organizational to-do list for the organization, allowing everyone involved to view, discuss and prioritize all the potential tasks.
They’ve founded the simplicity of the Trac user interface to be a big strength. It’s simple and clean - it doesn't overwhelm members with features, but MFPL can easily add in additional functionality as needed. On the other hand, the Trac system is not yet very mature, and the development team is still working through some user interface challenges. The system is designed to be public – another important strength - so they didn’t have to jump through hoops to open it up to a wide audience.
The system has been quite successful. As many as fifty or so members and staff have entered at least one ticket into Trac. There are about five intense users of the system, while most others post only one or a few items. This success has created some challenges, however - there is now an enormous amount of information stored in Trac, and the system doesn’t provide all the features they would like to help them manage that information. They find that it’s important to have someone in charge of the software, who can keep an eye on the information and make sure their process for using the tool flows smoothly.
Transparency is extremely important to MFPL, and Trac helps them achieve that. It’s been a useful way for them to track and prioritize the work to be done efficiently and publicly.
Wrapping it Up
Online project management software helped team members at all three of these organizations collaborate and share information. Even simple projects might benefit from an online file repository, or an easy way to share a task list. These software packages can be even more helpful in streamlining information storage and communication on complicated projects.
Managing projects will always be complex – but you don’t need to be daunted by online project management software. As these case studies show, they can provide a straightforward way to create online workspaces that facilitate both management and collaboration.
For More Information
Six Views of Project Management Software
An overview of the types of project management software that might be useful for you
Project-Management and Workflow with Basecamp
Alexandra Samuel of Social Signals provides a detailed view into how her team works with project-management tools, including Basecamp, OmniPlan, Remember The Milk, and Google Spreadsheets.
Collaboration That Works at ONE/Northwest
ONE/Northwest shares its collaboration and project-management process and software, including Basecamp, DotProject, and Salesforce.
Michelle Murrain, Ph.D., has worked with nonprofit and educational organizations on technology issues, particularly Internet technologies, since 1994, and is a nationally recognized leader in the nonprofit technology field. She is the coordinator of the NonProfit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) and principal of MetaCentric Technology Advising, a technology consulting practice focused on helping nonprofits implement technology sustainably. She blogs about nonprofit technology at Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology.
As Idealware’s Founder and Director, Laura S. Quinn directs Idealware’s research and writing to provide candid reports and articles about nonprofit software. Prior to Idealware, Laura provided website strategy, navigation, and online knowledge management consulting for nonprofits. Laura is a frequent speaker and writer on nonprofit technology topics.
Many thanks to the nonprofit technologists who were interviewed for this article: Jed Miller of Revenue Watch Institute, Alison Paul of Montana Legal Services Association, and Jamie McClelland and Alfredo Lopez of May First/ People Link.