Last week was interesting. I spent much of my time at a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico and returned to the DC area to lead a public lands day event on a military installation in MD.
As a woman who’s well into her 30’s, I got a lot of questions about why I spent four days at Boy Scout camp.
“It’s work” did not sufficiently lower the questioning eyebrows.
In trying to explain this trip and other trips and events I’ve been privileged to participate in, I took a step back to think about how to clarify the programmatic work I’ve done over the years.
How do you describe what it means to be a program leader for a nonprofit? I wish it were like being an X-Man and I could name one “special” power, but the reality is, the role of lead program officer means you have your hands in a little bit of everything.
I think what I experienced last week provides a good illustration of what leading programs entails. Below are a few categories I came up with that begin to answer the question “Why were you at Boy Scout camp?”
This element always causes confusion. People typically think technology when they hear project management but I assure you any good program manager understands the need to establish program goals, identify milestones and available resources, and establish timelines.
The fantastic thing about project management within a small to medium size nonprofit is that developing and managing project plans has to be done without all of the software available to IT project managers. In many cases, it is just me my trusty Excel spreadsheet and my much-beloved whiteboard.
This is way more than finding a fancy venue for an awards ceremony. Managing events for a program is everything from soliciting volunteers and donations to popping tents up in the wee hours of the morning, and of course writing talking points for the Army Colonel to use when preparing his remarks.
I will say that aspect of managing programs has allowed me to be very creative and challenged me in ways that I can only be grateful for now. Three years ago, I was working with a film crew to produce a video for a program launch. Somehow it became my job to develop the storyboard for the video and work with Bob Dole’s team to schedule his appearance in the video.
This is an important part of project management but I call it out as a stand-alone because developing the budget for the program and supporting elements is only a first step.
A good program manager makes sure that the team is aware of the total budget and what financial resources are available for their specific parts of the project. A good program manager is reviewing and monitoring expenditures regularly and managing overages, gaps, and the unicorn situation of underspending.
No one manages a program by themselves. Program leaders must be able to lead and communicate with small to large teams. You should know when to impanel an ad hoc committee when necessary and delegate to other team members without losing control of the project.
Finally, leading programs also puts you in the position to promote the organization. In so many cases, an organization’s programs are so deeply linked to many nonprofits mission, vision, and overall financial health.
Cheers to all the program leaders who perform in all the areas mentioned above and beyond.