7. Project Management

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Managing projects is critical in humanitarian responses. The humanitarian sector largely operates on the basis of projects. Funding proposals are made on the basis of projects, and what we do meets all the classic criteria of a project: it has a set duration; it has set resources (budget, staff, others); it tries to achieve a particular objective.

Humanitarian responses are very tough environments to manage projects. They change rapidly, you have to move fast, and information is lacking. CARE believes that this means that project management becomes more important, not less. You have to be more skilled, be comfortable with a bigger set of tools, and apply them appropriately. The project manager is often not the most senior position in an organogram – but if it is your job, you are one of the people that can make the biggest difference to the women, men, boys and girls affected by a crisis.

Humanitarian responses are tough environments, but the challenges are not unique. They might be particularly urgent, the stakeholders might be different or particularly challenging, the information might be less complete, but the challenges that a project manager faces are very similar to those faced by project managers in other sectors. You need to communicate with all those involved; you need to ensure that the project is designed in a way that meets the needs of the groups it is being run to support; you need to manage expenditures and resources to avoid overspending and maximize the efficiency of the project; you need to organize a team and get them to actually get the work done. These are all challenges that would be familiar to project managers everywhere – whether they are designing a new printer or piece of furniture; building a factory or a sports stadium; or reorganizing a social insurance or customer service system.

So the good news is that there are many tools developed for different environments that can help you in your job as a project manager in a humanitarian response. The difficult step is that many of them need thoughtful usage and adaptation to work effectively in an emergency response. Outside the white-hot emergency response phase, if you’re working in recovery or rehabilitation, you will have less need to change and adapt them.

This section complements the chapter on Operations Planning. Much of the guidance suggested there is essential for project managers. Note that whilst the CARE Emergency Toolkit has been developed in partnership with the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, this section is CARE’s guidance. Though it draws on PMI good practices and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), it is not official PMI guidance.

Really, the role of the project manager is simple. They have to achieve the project objectives, using the resources allocated for it, to accepted quality standards, in the time allocated for it. When you dig into that, of course the job can be extremely complex.

The project manager should normally not do the work, but should organize others with the relevant skills to get it done.

In a humanitarian response, the project manager is often not involved in the initial identification of the project objectives and scope. Assessment teams will see what is happening, analyse the situations and will identify high-priority objectives for the women, men, boys and girls that have been affected. Proposal writers or senior managers may have written proposals that define the limits of the project (in time, location, budget, general approach, etc.). As a project manager, you are often given a set of restrictions which you need to work within. However, you will need to see as soon as possible, whether it will actually be possible to achieve the objectives within those restrictions. The sooner you find out that it may not be possible, the easier it will be to find ways to work within or around them (such as coming up with innovative new approaches, or finding complementary projects that support the achievement of the same objectives).


One of your first tasks as a newly-hired Project Manager is to locate all key documents that define the project and its commitments. You’ll refer to these documents often: they should serve as the foundation of project planning, compliance and monitoring of project activities

The following checklist describes some of the most common documents Project Managers should review. (Be sure to ask the design team and management if there are any other unique project-related documents that you should be aware of.)

  • Technical Proposal
    • Together with your project agreement or contract, the proposal states the context, defines the problem and describes the affected population and target areas. It should identify your goal, objectives, activities, inputs, outcomes and indicators. It also describes the project’s strategy to achieve the desired project impact.
    • The proposal DOES NOT provide you with the level of information you need to manage the project by itself, but is an important reference. It may provide you with the envisioned staffing structure, geographic focus, and partners, including their roles and responsibilities. This is useful but will need at least a brief check to make sure it is still appropriate for meeting the project objectives.
  • Logical framework
    • Some proposals will include a logical framework (log frame), which is a summary of the proposal’s main elements. The log frame provides you with a picture of how the project will work to achieve its goal. It includes the indicators (measures that show progress), means of verification (sources of information and methods used to show progress) and assumptions (events, conditions or decisions which are beyond the project’s control) that relate to your goal, objectives, outputs and activities.
  • Budget
    • The budget will provide the planned expenses for activities proposed in the technical proposal. By becoming thoroughly familiar with the budget, you can better manage the funding provided by the donor. The budget will include:
      • Approved budget line items – major groupings of cost which may vary depending on the donor. The major groupings are used to monitor status of expenses.
      • Detailed budget – provides cost details included in each approved line item. For example, the number of items budgeted and unit costs are included in this document.
      • Cost share – represents CARE’s contribution to the project’s costs, sometimes called match funding. This could be cash or “in kind” contribution. The budget will describe the type of cost and designate the source. Cost share contributions are contractual obligations; donors’ contributions can be reduced if CARE is unable to meet its cost share.
    • Budget Notes
      • Budget notes contain additional information about the budget. These notes should explain the nature of the costs, the basis of unit costs and how the number of units was calculated in the budget.
    • Monitoring and Evaluation Plan
      • Some proposals will include a Monitoring and Evaluation plan. This will give you an overview of what information you need to collect, analyse and report to assess project progress, performance and impact.
    • Partnership, subgranting or any other stakeholder agreements
      • Some partnership or subgranting agreements are signed during the project design phase. These agreements between CARE and project partners describe rights and responsibilities. Among the issues usually covered are period of agreement, obligated funds and payments, reporting and evaluation, general provisions and other topics that may relate to guiding principles, confidentiality, conflict of interest, dispute resolutions and many others. These agreements help partners hold each other accountable and settle potential conflicts. If you haven’t signed agreements with your partners in advance, be sure to do so at the project’s inception.
    • Contract
      • This legally binding agreement between CARE and the donor must be signed for the project (and any related spending) to begin. Contracts, also referred to as grant agreements, state our obligations to the donor, along with reporting requirements and rules and regulations. Be sure to study this important document since it will provide you with the outline for contract compliance.
    • Individual Project Implementation Agreement (IPIA)
      • The IPIA is the contract between a Country Office and the CI member relevant to a specific project. In most cases, IPIA’s are signed when the funding member is not the CO’s lead member. The IPIA lists basic project information, the portion of the grant that will be controlled by the CO, and the percentage of overhead costs that will be collected by the CI member. The agreement also specifies the CI member’s reporting requirements, and any special required circumstances.

In the first 24-72 hours after a sudden onset emergency it will not make sense to use the more formal tools of project management.

You will still need to be using the same processes, but in a much more flexible and informal way.

Communication – use stand-up team meetings to get team members on the same page about who is doing what that day. Use brief situation reports (sitreps) to update other parts of the office of the wider CARE about what is happening and what you are doing. Make sure that team meetings include as many of the team needed to deliver the assistance as possible. Particularly be sure to involve logistics, procurement and finance colleagues if you will need to quickly find and provide emergency assistance packages. Even if you haven’t been able to organize a specific meeting, you can still update colleagues in a car on the way to a field site.

Planning – see the Operational Planning section. Rather than developing full Work Breakdown Structures, use simple checklists of what needs to be done that day (or in the coming days) to advance the work.

Issues, Risks – some issues (problems) will need your immediate action to get assistance flowing. Others will need less immediate action. Rather than formal risk and issue registers, you will be better off with simple lists of issues and risks (potential problems). This will mean that you can keep your focus on the most important or urgent tasks, without losing the information or insights. Capture your own ideas and those of team members and other stakeholders

Human Resources – see the HR section for information on hiring, etc. In this initial stage you will be overwhelmingly dependent on current staff, community members, volunteers and partner organizations (and their staff). At the earliest possible opportunity, get an overview of what needs to be done and what amount of people can be assigned to the different tasks. Make some quick assignments to different tasks, and check in with them often. Give them as much support as you can, and the responsibility to make choices about how to do their work (as much as possible).

Stakeholders – involve affected people as much as you can, and particularly find ways for the active participation of women. At the absolute minimum, you and the whole project team need to be communicating consistently with local stakeholders on current plans, and exploring what will make sense in the next stage of the operation, without making promises.

In theory, slow onset emergencies give us a much longer time frame to plan, hire and organize our work. You should have more time to allocate staff efficiently to tasks and to create accurate budgets and forecasts.

The practice is often different. By the time an emergency is noticed, funding secured and you are working, people may well be dying. You need to move fast, but you do have more scope for using good project management practices.

Team – create a wide project team. Include colleagues from functions like HR, procurement, finance that will be necessary to getting the project done. Schedule weekly project team meetings and stick to them, even if some/many people are not present. The team should still meet if the Project Manager is not there! If there isn’t much to discuss, you won’t lose much time, and you might find out something really important.

Respect your team and their ability to get their work done. They have skills that you will often not have. At the same time, give them very clear guidance on what the expectations of them are. You may need to adjust the project timelines or budget projections if they tell you the expectations cannot be met. You may also need to give them extra support, training or guidance to help them meet the expectations. If you are having difficulty with the work of a particular team member, break down work into smaller parts with shorter timeframes for completion so that both of you can be confident about the timing and quality of the work as it is progressing.

Your role is also to solve problems that your team bring to you. You may need to speak to colleagues in other teams or with senior management to help them with new information, access to resources, or revised timelines. Tackle problems as soon as they come up. You can also delegate solving issues to team members if appropriate, but an important part of being the project manager is to remove obstacles in the way of your team.

If your team raises a potential problem to you (e.g. a vendor might be delayed in delivering food, if the road conditions get worse) then this is a RISK. You need to make a record of it and you may need to take steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening or the impact if it does (e.g. finding alternative vendors with local stocks).

Communication – use more structured, but concise written reports. Provide information to sitreps which allow everyone to get an overview of the whole response. Hold regular meetings of your team (weekly) including all those needed for the project (finance, HR, logistics, procurement). Share information on your project and its progress through all staff meetings, newsletters, chat groups (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook) so that colleagues who aren’t directly involved have a general idea of what’s going on. Print out the latest information on your project (e.g. including objective, timeframe, progess against time, achievements, issues, next steps) and post it somewhere prominent so that others can see it.

Work planning – get as full a picture as you need of all the different tasks that need to be done for all of the project deliverables to be completed. Use a Work Breakdown Structure or similar hierarchical system to understand what needs to be done. Include project management, promotion or communications deliverables like quarterly financial reports, press releases or blog articles. These all take time and people working on them, and you need to manage them. You may have to complete a report to a donor or it might be someone else, but you will surely be asked to provide information. Good practice suggests that it is most efficient to include tasks which take no less than 2 days to complete (so you’re not trying to manage tiny tasks) – but you should use the level of detail that you will need to make sure work is progressing. If a team is inexperienced or you anticipate problems, then you might need to break tasks up more. In the humanitarian sector it is a more common problem to leave tasks in lumps that are too big, making them hard to keep track of.

Scheduling – Use a simple Gantt chart to keep track of when different pieces of work are scheduled to start and end. Regularly discuss with team members whether their estimates have changed, or some problems have emerged that will mean that the schedule needs to be changed. If the estimates have changed, then look at how this will impact the date for completing the project. Include all the tasks on the schedule, and consider using specialized project management software if you have many tasks to keep track of. It will make your life much easier.

As with work planning, make sure that you’ve broken the work down into small enough pieces. In the humanitarian sector, it’s quite common to see schedules that have four elements like “Assessment” “Start-up” “Implementation” and “Close and Reporting”. This is not useful. You need to get into the details of what work will actually be completed and how long it will take to do that. This is the only way you can test the initial assumptions about what the end date will be, and give you the opportunity to find solutions if the assumptions were not right.

Rapid or slow onset, you need to to manage your budget.

You need to get regular reports on how much your project has spent. You also need to produce cashflow forecasts that estimate how much you will be spending in the next month and the rest of the project. This is important to make sure that your office has the right amount of cash on hand to pay expenses. It is also important for you as a project manager to check whether you are spending too much or too little money.

Even with a report on your spending against the total amount in your budget (sometimes called burn rates, or budget vs actuals (BvA)), you will need to know how much you are still planning to spend. You could have spent only 10% of your budget, but still be overspending if you have very large expenses coming up in the next weeks.

Budget Monitoring

To monitor your budget effectively, you’ll need to review the “burn rate”– the rate at which funds are being expended on a project. A fast or slow burn rate is an indication that the actual project implementation is either going faster or slower than originally planned.

Slow burn rate: A slow burn rate may indicate delays in implementation, and not being able to fully spend the funds as of the end of the current year’s budget period, or over the life of the grant. A no-cost extension may be necessary–if so, initiate this process as soon as possible. Remember: a no cost extension may be necessary, but is rarely optimal. You will either be reducing activities to balance out your support costs, or you will have to use budget lines for support costs to pay for activities, and leave you without funds to cover rent, electricity, or fuel.

Fast burn rate: A fast burn rate may mean that project implementation is ahead of plan, or that some activities cost more than planned. This is something you should track to make sure that the level of spending is aligned with the planned project progress. If not, you might have to obligate more funds or cut back on the scope of the project. Both scenarios would require negotiation with the donor and CO management.

How to monitor a budget

Your budget is critical to the success of your project. As PM, you should monitor the financial activities of the project at least once a month. Work closely with the Program Support Unit (Controller or Project Accountant) and agree on the following:

  • Critical budget related compliance matters (what you can spend on and how; what processes must be followed (see the finance section)
  • Financial monitoring requirements of the donor and your own needs – detailed budget (as approved by the donor), compared with actual expenses, in US$ and original currency of the grant/reporting currency. Always look at award budget and expenses from project start date, with data compared to annual budget and/or life of grant budget.
  • Ask the Program Support Unit to help analyze the data by explaining favourable and unfavourable variances between budget and actual amount at budget line item level.