Unpacking an Association’s Project Management Bag

  • Photo of Gretchen Steenstra
    Gretchen Steenstra
  • Photo of Cara Van Ryn
    Cara Van Ryn

Imagine hiking into the woods for an overnight backpacking trip. The 40-pound pack on your back is heavy, but it has everything you need for a few days away from the luxuries of civilization.

When you started backpack camping, those first few miles were anxious ones. What did I forget? What if I’m not prepared for the unexpected? But now, heading down the trail, you’re confident, excited, and prepared to face whatever the wilderness brings your way.

Project managers head into a new project with that same sense of excitement and caution. And, like backpackers, they only achieve success if they have everything they need.

Let’s see what association project managers carry in the backpacks.


A backcountry camping trip is a project. Responsibilities are divvied up. Someone carries the tent, and someone else carries the stove and food. One person filters water while another gets the food ready. The person with the most knowledge and experience usually takes the lead. They know how to manage time and can show others how to do their tasks efficiently. They understand how to handle risks and follow park regulations.

During a technology project, the leader must also have the right skills—in this case, project management knowledge and experience. You need a professional project manager, either someone on staff who’s properly trained and whose job is to manage projects or an outsourced project manager with the right mix of credentials and experience.

But sometimes, a colleague without any project management experience is put in charge of the project. They’re already carrying a heavy workload and now they’re somehow expected to carry this additional load. Or, the technology vendor’s project manager is left to manage the project. The problem is that their focus is managing their team’s work, not the tasks assigned to your association.

The most important component of your project management bag is people. Unfortunately, many associations set themselves up for a hard trail ahead when the person in charge has neither the skills nor the time to effectively lead the project. 

To start, you must define project roles and responsibilities in detail for each person. Make sure the right people are included in each phase of the project. For example, don’t exclude important users from requirements discussions or assign too few people to convert data or test the system. 

A large project team for a technology project (for example, an LMS, CMS, or AMS implementation) must include the following roles:

  • Professional project manager: A staff member or consultant.
  • Executive sponsor: The executive sponsor is accountable for the success of the project. This role is typically an executive with the authority to provide the necessary resources (including budget and staff time), remove internal obstacles, and hold team members accountable for their responsibilities. The sponsor keeps the leadership team updated on the project. Without the support of an executive sponsor, projects are more likely to fail.
  • Business analyst: The business analyst helps the organization analyze needs, gather requirements, and discuss solutions.
  • Business experts: People within the business unit, such as staff who use the system or use data from the system. They don’t have to be managers or directors.
  • Technologists: Someone from the IT department who can help with technical aspects of the project. For example, they may define the data exchange and business rules for integration.
  • Solution provider: The solution provider helps with selection and implementation. They are both accountable and responsible for configuring and delivering the solution to the client.
  • Vendor partner: Vendor partners are involved with other solutions in the organization’s ecosystem.

During the project, revisit roles and responsibilities during different project phases. Keep the right people engaged at the right time.


An experienced backpacker doesn’t head out into the woods without a plan. They have a proven method for tackling different tasks, like stowing food away from hungry bears and are prepared for the unexpected, like a turn in the weather.

An effective project manager has a series of guides and tools tucked in their project manager’s bag, such as:

Project charter. An official one-pager signed off by the executive sponsor and key stakeholders authorizing the project to begin and granting the project manager authority to manage the project. It demonstrates management’s commitment to the project and allocates the resources required to successfully complete it. In the project charter are a description and scope of the project—what the project includes and what it doesn’t.

Project management plan. This document includes the following:

  • Stakeholder registry
  • Project timeline and budget
  • Communication plan
  • Risk management plan
  • Change control plan
  • Quality control plan
  • System acceptance and testing plan
  • Documentation policy
  • Integration management plan
  • Project close plan
  • Association standards, guidelines, and policies

It’s important to keep in mind that many projects are run using an iterative style where elements of the plan are refined and adjusted during regular cycles throughout the project timeline. Let’s dig into a few of those plans and policies.

Communication plan. This plan defines the frequency and format for communication about the project with different groups, such as the core project team, leadership, and staff. The project team must always be kept in the loop. Throughout the project, people tend to focus on their own tasks without grasping their impact on others, especially in remote settings. It’s critical to establish the right cadence and style of communication that will effectively support the core team. For example, some teams prefer daily standup meetings while others prefer longer weekly meetings.

Requirements. Requirements are the heart of the project; it’s hard to have a project without them! As part of the planning cycle, it’s critical to define the necessary functions that must be configured or developed for a project to be considered complete. Creating an initial framework of requirements can accomplish this.

These can then be scoped and refined further as needed. As your team develops requirements, it’s an excellent time to reexamine complex processes that may benefit from another look and determine how the new solution can solve each requirement. It is also important to write requirements in a way that they are testable.

Risk management plan. It is critical that you monitor and react to issues when they are small so that they don’t escalate into an emergency situation.

System acceptance and testing plan.

Training plan. A formal training plan must be part of the organization’s professional development and budget process.

Project close documentation. Make time for internal and partner/vendor project close meetings. This documentation—an archive or library of lessons learned—is an organizational asset.

For large projects, consider reviewing organizational strategies and standards that may impact the project, such as:

  • Data privacy policy
  • Data integration strategy and policies
  • Preference management
  • Security


Don’t wait until you’re out of cell phone range and miles away from the nearest computer to find out that no one knows how to set up the tent, light the camp stove, or hang your food. Everyone’s a backpacker. They should all have basic backpacking skills.

Every staff member in your association is a project manager. CEOs manage major initiatives. Membership staff manage recruitment campaigns. Meeting planners manage events. Everyone should have basic project management skills.

However, large projects require a great deal of time and thus a dedicated project manager with the following advanced project management skills:

  • Planning, prioritization, and scheduling
  • Leadership and team management
  • Adult learning styles
  • Task management
  • Communication
  • Negotiating
  • Risk management
  • Cost containment
  • Quality assurance
  • Facilitation
  • Change management

Consider hiring an external expert to fill this critical role if you don’t have an internal project management office. Ideally, your project manager holds a project management certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). The Project Management Institute offers a variety of project management certifications from the classic PMP to agile certifications such as the PMI-ACP. A study found that when more than a third of an organization’s project managers are certified, more projects meet original goals and are completed on time and on budget.


Backpackers carry only what they know they need or should have handy for the trip ahead. Space is limited. The more you pack, the heavier the load.

Project managers have more tools at hand—both tangible and digital. Assembling the right set of tools is critical. Having too many tools can lead to a loss of time and information or duplication of work caused by unintegrated systems.

Pick the right tool for the job. Take into consideration what your vendor’s team is using. Keep in mind that sometimes the tools included in a software package are just okay, not great. The core team must determine if included tools meet their needs or if separate tools are needed.

Document storage. It is critical to define where all PM documents will be accessed throughout the project. This includes information shared with your vendor as well as internal staff documents. If you plan to store project documents in the project management (PM) tool, develop a plan to archive key documents.

Project team collaboration tool. Identify the tool that will be used to support the project. We’ve seen clients have success with Slack, Microsoft Teams, and the chat function within their PM tool. Pick and allow only one collaboration tools. If you have too many options in place, information will get lost.

Project management tools. Many factors come into play when selecting PM tools.

  • Task management: Options include Wrike, LiquidPlanner, Asana, and Microsoft Planner (part of Office 365). Does your team like the kanban scheduling system? If so, consider Trello or the card view of Asana.
  • Tasks with many dependencies: Options include Microsoft Project, Clarizen, and Teamwork.
  • Calendars: Use your PM tool and/or Outlook.
  • Workflow, mockup, and wireframe tools: Options include Microsoft Visio and Lucidchart.

Facilitation toolbox. Brainstorming and planning sessions are typically more effective in person. However, meetings focused on a specific activity, such as requirements or testing, can be managed using virtual meeting tools.

Prepare your association project management backpack.

As you can see, the project manager’s bag is both full and heavy. You can’t expect someone on staff to carry a project manager’s backpack while already wearing another (for example, membership department responsibilities). Imagine a hiker trying to weigh themselves down with two heavy backpacks—it won’t work for long. 

Instead, distribute the weight evenly. Consider having a professional project manager assist your team so you have adequate people on hand to carry all the bags you need to make your IT project a success.

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