The Nonprofit Project Happiness Cycle

Scoping for Successful Projects

The art of creating a strong project scope is honed by practice in real-world scenarios.

This is the 6th week of the Berkeley-Haas 15-week semester. For many students engaged in our experiential programs, this is the point where their project is either helped or hindered by something they did in week 1 — their project scope.

Social Sector Solutions and Berkeley Board Fellows are two excellent examples of the need for a strong scope and workplan to set up the team for success.

The Social Sector Solutions course places a multi-disciplanary team with a nonprofit organization to work on a tough, mission-critical question. The teams provide approximately 900 hours of consulting services to the nonprofit. With so many resources invested in a short period of time, it’s critical to have a strong project scope from the beginning.

Because of this, the first team deliverable is a detailed scoping letter. The scoping letter has 3 parts:

  1. An understanding of the situation and goals of the project
  2. Detailed project plan with milestones
  3. Working arrangements

The scoping letter is signed by both the students and the client to ensure clear communication and buy-in from everyone involved.

Parts 2 and 3 ensure that the guideposts are in place early to keep the team and client on track. Identifying the milestones enables the team to work diligently toward a set of project deadlines. Agreeing on the working arrangements, such as how often to meet, who is the main point of contact, how to create and share documents, etc, means there is less logistical friction as the project progresses. These two parts create a critical support system to help the team and the nonprofit weather the ups and downs of a typical project, what we call the “Happiness Cycle.”

Berkeley Board Fellows participants work on their project scopes at the 2016 Kickoff.

Berkeley Board Fellows work in pairs and serve 8 months on the board of directors of local nonprofit organization. Early in the program, students receive training on how to scope their board projects. This past December, a consultant from The Bridgespan Group lead the group through project scoping fundamentals. The main scoping points from that presentation were:

  • What key question or key decision does the project
    seek to inform?
  • What are the current hypotheses around the answer or
    decision to be made?
  • What data / analysis is needed to test these
  • What will make coming to a decision difficult?
  • Who are the most important stakeholders to engage?

Using these questions as a guide, each pair of fellows creates a scope furthers the critical governance work of the board. In the process, these grad students develop key community ties, grow as leaders, and apply the many lessons typically reserved for management case studies.

Over the long run of both of these programs we have learned that good project scoping is both critical to overall success and a practiced art. To be sure, the infamous “scope creep” can infiltrate even the most well-planned project. However, having clear goals and team norms from the beginning can help realign the team’s work to focus on answering the most critical questions.

What are tips for good scoping that you have employed?