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Project Management of Software Development for an NGO: Notes from the Ground

Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer

Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer

Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer, Executive Director for WDB Trust, talks about project management in the NGO sector, agile development, and how software development practices need to meet organisational needs in order to deliver success.

Digitization, AI, software development for business intelligence, and acquisition of software programs to optimize service delivery are currently frequently used words in the NGO sector. In the industry of development, stakeholders are equally as interested and preoccupied with keeping up to date with technological advances to put them to the service of beneficiaries in the different areas of outreach. 

However, it seems that product and service providers speak two different languages, and are too focused on applying their new management models, which are effective for some clients but may be too daunting for the teams in the world of development, resulting in products that either do not respond to the organizational needs or which are too difficult to implement and end up being underutilized.  

As an actor in the NGO sector, and from the first-hand experience, here are some notes to share with project managers and product developers, which might be useful to make the best of your communication with NGO clients. 

Photo: Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer-Executive Director WDB Trust www.wdbtrust.org.za 

Go beyond the brief

When an organization in the development (NGO) sector engages with a developer for a particular software product the difference in skills within the organization in comparison with a corporate client needs to be taken into account by the project management team. The brief then needs to be understood from a perspective of needs and perhaps with the knowledge that the team will need slightly more assistance in the implementation than a corporate client. 

In practical terms, this means that the development and management team must enquire with a higher degree of detail about the compatibility of the existing systems with the commissioned work, the level of skill of the end-user to do the final implementation, and the fluency of both management and ground teams in the languages that are going to be implemented (i.e financial software/ business intelligence/ data processing and of course, AI)

Agile models don't always work with the working culture of the development sector

Project managers are very proud of the agility of their models, the efficiency of their scrum, and the development and delivery of fully functional parts of the commissioned service to the client, and this is a good thing. However, sometimes, the organization you are serving is not ready for the pace of an agile model and they need to be handheld to absorb the deliveries from each iteration effectively. 

Failure to do so will lead a client to be overwhelmed by all the fractions of the finished product without being able to take advantage of their functionality. In other words, deliveries from iterations require as extensive an induction as the delivery of the final product; otherwise, the risk is that the parts of the product delivered in each iteration get absorbed in older, less efficient systems and the deliveries are either not used, misused or even worse, perceived to be an additional burden to the already exhausted and confused teams.

Instead of a brief, listen to the needs of the organization

When commissioned to develop or customize an existing product for an organization in the development (NGO) sector, a strategy for effective communication and better understanding for the project managers may be to receive the brief and complementing it with a cursory survey of the actual needs of the organization. It is often the case that boards and even management buy into ideas products to solve some of the problems of the organization, but they do not take into account the wider context of the organization including fund availability until the end of the project, teams in the ground who will be implementing, interaction with other existing systems, skills gap, and the dimensions and depths of the problem that you are called to assist in solving. 

The project management team needs to be well acquainted with the organization’s core, values, and purpose. Alignment between this and the product that is being developed is instrumental for its success. NGOs have restricted precious funds, so efficiency is critical as every hour counts. Once the project is in motion and the iterations have started, an interactive, pedagogic, and highly communicative approach can assist the client to integrate the new product into existing processes smoothly. 

No jargon, thank you.

When providing a workflow and the features of a product that has been commissioned, project managers and project developers tend to be overly technical in their presentations and their slide decks. This creates a gap that impedes the organization’s management to actually understand what exactly is it that you will be doing, how will it work, who needs to do what for it to work successfully, and by when. 

Technical knowledge is important and you are valued for it, but a skill that may be very useful for the project management team is to be able to present the project, explain the process, and illustrate the functionality in lay terms. NGOs, as opposed to corporate clients, have a more grassroots culture that is reflected in all the work they do, even if it is a highly technological one. We are also in the quest to digitize, automate, and make use of the technological advances for the service of our beneficiaries. Simplicity in language complemented by cost-effectiveness, user-friendly interfaces, and tangible functionality in the short term can contribute to close the gap and extend the benefits of IT products and updates to the most vulnerable members of our society. 

About the Author

Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer-Executive Director WDB Trust www.wdbtrust.org.za 

Dr. Luz Helena Hanauer holds a Ph.D. in International Economic Law from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, an LLM in International Business Law from the University of Liverpool in the UK, and an LLB in Law from the Universidad Externado de Colombia. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Women’s Development Business - WDB Trust, a Public Benefit Organization which enables platforms for microfinance for rural women, training for rural women and youth, and social development for rural families. 

In the past, Luz Helena has served as Head of Research and Publications at the Zanele Mbeki Development Trust advocating for gender equality; she has also worked as Head of Programmes in the NGO sector, focusing on child development, youth formation, grassroots governance, and natural resources. She acquired corporate experience by working as an International Trade Manager at a Public Health organization performing legal, commercial, and financial management, due diligence on greenfield projects, imports, international investment, and local projects. 

She is fluent in Spanish, English, and French and has a thorough knowledge of the cultural, historical, policy, and societal landscape of South Africa. Luz Helena has published in Spanish and English in the different academic spaces where she has participated and is interested in Global South topics.