Implementation of the project management phases in volunteer student NGOs: The case of BEST

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Developed by Evdoxia Pertsinidou

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project management is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project” [1]. The process of managing a project from the beginning till the end can be divided into five phases; Conception and Initiation, Definition and Planning, Launch/Execution, Performance and Control and Close. These phases make up a project life cycle; “a collection of generally sequential and sometimes overlapping project phases whose name and number are determined by the management and control needs of the organisation.” The intensity of activities over time is presented in Figure 2 [1].

Most of the bibliography on the phases of project management focuses on applications inside the corporate world. This wiki page will present the theoretical characteristics of each phase and will analyse the case of an international student volunteer NGO, Board of European Students of Technology [2]. This is an attempt to understand how the student and volunteer nature of an organisation affect the implementation of projects according to the project management phases, as well as address issues faced and improvement points in each phase. The wiki page is based on the author's experience gained from being a member of the organisation and aims to provide the base for future research on this case.



Terms and abbreviations use

AAP: Annual Action Plan
BCD: BEST Career Day [3]
BEST: Board of European Students of Technology
BEST year: The BEST working year starts on July 1st of each year, thus, the yearly work of BEST is being kicked off after this point.
BEST mandate: The year from July 1st of one year till June 30th of the next.
BESTies: Volunteers inside BEST
KPI: Key Performance Indicator
LBG: Local BEST Group
LTSP: Long-Term Strategic Plan
NGO: Non-Governmental Organization
PA: Private Area - The internal working website of BEST [4]
PWS: Public Website of BEST
RA: Regional Adviser

Case information gathering and disclaimer

I have been part of BEST since March 2014. I initially started on a local level in Thessaloniki, Greece. I slowly got integrated in the international level and since July 1st 2016 I am the Vice President for Projects of the organisation. This wiki page contains both objective information on how the organisation functions and my personal view and opinion on several project management-related aspects inside BEST. The example cases presented in this wiki are taken from the reporting documents of the organisation’s projects that can be found in the BEST Private Area, which unfortunately is not publicly accessible. Even though there are many positive aspects of the way project management is happening in the organisation, this wiki will focus on identifying improvement points and their causes. The ultimate goal is to later on continue this analysis and provide a plan of recommendations for BEST and potentially be used by other volunteer student NGOs to improve their management of projects.

BEST - Board of European Students of Technology

[2] [5]

Introduction about BEST

BEST is a constantly growing non-profit and non-political student organisation. Since 1989 it provides communication, cooperation and exchange possibilities for students all over Europe. It currently counts around 4000 members from 33 countries and its services reach over a million European students of technology.

Structure of BEST

Figure 1: Internal structure of BEST - retrieved from BEST Private Area

For the past years, a need for change in the internal structure of the organisation was realised, resulting in a new matrix structure which was implemented in 2015-16. Therefore, the year 2016-17 is the first year that BEST is officially working with a matrix structure. The whole organisation is led by 7 people, the International Board of BEST (presented on the left part of Figure 1). There are 10 departments (presented on the right of Figure 1) dealing with the operational work, including hundreds of department projects. Since these projects are dealing with operational work and their impact is not that broad though, they will not be analysed in this wiki page. This wiki will focus on the around 20 projects that aim to drastically develop the organisation and its services. Although the number 20 may not seem a big one comparing with large international companies, these projects are of crucial importance to the organisation and failure of these projects has severe consequences, stressing the need for effective project management.

Since BEST is a volunteer student organisation, studies, work or other factors have a major effect on the time that BESTies spend working for the organisation. Moreover, the not-paying nature of volunteer work [6] combined with the workload of top-hierarchy positions inside BEST led to the decision to make the mandate of these positions last one year. All department coordinators, the international board as well as many other leaders inside BEST receive a knowledge transfer from their predecessors in the beginning of their mandate.

Way of performing planning inside BEST

A Long-Term Strategic Plan is being constructed every 3 years. This strategic plan defines a general direction that the organisation should move towards to, including a flexibility level on what exactly should be accomplished each year. In the middle of July, the new board of BEST gathers in a live meeting and based on the LTSP of BEST, sets the Annual Action Plan of the organisation which is a set of concrete goals and actions to be achieved each year. This plan is then feedback by all relevant bodies and experienced BESTies and the work is broken down to the relevant bodies. A big part of the AAP of BEST happens through projects which may last from a few months to several years. Some projects take place every year (with a slightly different purpose), while some others kick-off and dissolve inside the same BEST mandate. Every project is led by a project coordinator and may include a team of 3-7 people. Nevertheless, many more people are involved in each project as the matrix structure implies.

The 5 phases of project management

[1] [7]

1. Project Conception and Initiation

The relevance of an idea for a project, the possible benefits to the organisation, the key stakeholders and the feasibility of the project are examined in this phase. A decision making team decides upon the initiation of the project. If the project is approved, a project charter or project initiation document (PID) should be created where the purpose and general requirements of the project are outlined.

2. Project Definition and Planning

Figure 2: Intensity of activities per phase over time according the PMI®

The scope of the project and the project management plan are defined in this stage. These include the following:

  • Setting SMART goals
  • Creating a realistic timeline (e.g. using a Gantt Chart)
  • Human resources requirements
  • Budget estimation
  • Resource allocation plan
  • Communication plan
  • Risk management plan

The overall planning of the project will later on serve as a baseline used to determine if the project proceeds smoothly.

3. Project Launch or Execution

This is the most intense phase of project management in the sense that a lot of the work takes place here. The deliverables of the project are worked upon and completed. A “kick-off” meeting may mark the start of this phase where the project team and other relevant people are informed of their responsibilities, the timeline of the project, etc.

Some of the tasks completed during the Execution phase are:

  • Establish a team
  • Assign resources
  • Execute project management plans
  • Status meetings
Figure 3: Time sequence of the project management phases according to the PMI®
  • Modify project plans as required

4. Project Performance and Control

In this phase, the project manager measures and evaluates the project’s progression and performance, ensuring that the initial plan is followed. KPIs should be used for this purpose (a method like the Balanced Scorecard can be used). Adjustments on the initial plan may be required in this phase as well.

It should be noted that most activities of this phase often happen in parallel with the project Execution phase, one could say in an iterative way as can be seen in Figure 3.

5. Project Close

After all tasks of a project are completed, an evaluation is necessary to highlight the project’s success and identify its possible failures. This is part of the knowledge management of a project and these improvement points can be used for future projects. Furthermore, a final budget and report of the project should be performed and all relevant documents stored in a single place.

Phase characteristics inside BEST projects


1. Project Conception and Initiation

The projects that are proposed each year come from a detailed SWOT analysis of the organisation where all relevant people are involved and extensive rounds of work breakdown and feedback take place. Therefore, the potential benefits of each project are quite clear.

The approval of projects is the responsibility of the international board of BEST so in this case these 7 people are the decision making team as theory mentions. Input from other bodies of BEST is collected, no external stakeholder is advised though at this phase. One might argue than many of these projects aim to develop or change internal areas of the organisation. Nevertheless, a big part of projects aim on service development. Why aren’t external stakeholders like universities, companies or external students involved in this process then? The most probable reason is the nature of the organisation itself. Even though there are several stakeholder around BEST, there are very specific occasions when they are involved. For example, when BEST Career Day [3] takes place, it is obvious that the relevant external stakeholder will be involved since they are directly involved in the event itself. While setting goals though, the only way to receive input from stakeholders is indirectly, from the evaluation forms of the services that the relevant stakeholders filled the previous year.

After a project has been approved, there is no project initiation document as the theory suggests. Some members of the organisation believe that with the previous top-down structure, the number of projects was not significant and there was no need to have such a document. Thinking from a more holistic perspective though, there are some issues that could have been prevented by establishing such a document. To begin with, even though the purpose and objectives of each project are clear when the project is kicked-off, the personal working methods and interests of the people involved differ. As a result, in several occasions a project is focusing on a specific part of its original goal if this part seems more appealing to the coordinator and the team or if unexpected challenges come up in other parts. Moreover, some people have the need for perfection, spending too much focus on details of the project that in the end might not be that important. This combined with not having very strict deadlines can easily cause delays. The increased number of projects that the organisation will have in the new structure stresses the need for efficiency so the need for such a document should be more carefully discussed.

2. Project Definition and Planning

Defining the scope and project management plan

The scope and the project management plan for each project are developed in different ways in BEST depending on the project; its importance, estimated duration, human resources required, etc. In some projects, a kick-off meeting takes place where all project members and other relevant people meet up and develop the plan of the project, divide responsibilities, analyse human resource requirements and so on. Some of the projects are kicked-off during Summer International Projects’ Forum. This is a live event where 70 experienced BESTies gather in a live event with the aim to finalise the AAP of the organisation, kick-off projects and break down the work of the organisation dividing responsibilities and tasks. Lastly, some projects are kicked-off online if there is no need or resources for a live event.

Establishing SMART goals

Even though the SMART model is broadly used inside BEST, it is not commonly used when setting the goals and actions of a project. The main difficulty is the “Measurable”, “Achievable” and “Time-bound” part of SMART. Being mostly students of technology, BESTies do not have much knowledge on how to make actions measurable or how to break them into smaller measurable parts. As a result, even when a project is finished it is often problematic to understand to what degree the goal of the project was achieved. Moreover, it may sound like common sense to make a goal achievable. However, what many times can be forgotten in student volunteer organisations, is the limitations of the knowledge inside the organisation and its people. As an example, a couple of year ago there was a 3-year lasting project with the aim to do a Market Research in order to better match stakeholders’ expectations. After a long time of preparing surveys, distributing them and ineffectively analysing their outcomes, people realised that BEST lacks the knowledge on how to actually do a proper Market Research! Lastly, even though a timeline is created when planning a project, the cooperation with other bodies of BEST and its actual duration is not estimated correctly as will be discussed later on.

Communication plan

Many of the projects held in BEST result in important decisions that affect the whole organisation. Even though the decision to initiate these projects lay on the board of BEST, the decision to implement the outcomes or changes lay on the whole organisation. Twice a year, the General Meetings of BEST take place where delegates from all local groups and international teams get the opportunity to discuss topics that affect the whole organisation, and vote on changes to be implemented. The communication plan of each project is therefore targeted to the internal part of BEST with the goal to present updates or the outcomes of a project. Regarding external stakeholders, the only communication happens after valuable outcomes have been reached and can be presented.

Risk Management plan

Risk management is never performed when initiating a project. It surely has been discussed, however risk management is seen as a time-costly activity. Since most projects are kicked-off as fast as possible in order to have the maximum amount of time available to complete them until the end of the BEST year, this process never takes place. It surely is an improvement point in the way projects are handed inside BEST since many of the issues faced around projects could be avoided or treated differently if potential risks were known in advance.

3. Project Launch or Execution and Project Performance and Control

Since these phases take place mostly in parallel, they will be analysed together.

Formation of a project team

Reading the theoretical explanation of the project management phases, it is not hard to see that some of the tasks described in this phase (e.g. having a kick-off meeting), were analysed in the previous phase in the case of BEST. A common practise in the corporate world is that projects are approved, their scope is established, and only then a coordinator and team are chosen. However, in volunteer organisations it is essential to involve the people that will work on a project or task from the very beginning whenever possible. What differs in volunteer organisations is the fact that most people are intrinsically motivated since no “official” reward is given to them. Intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. [8] Moreover, the student nature of the organisation implies increased needs for experiencing new things and self-development, and the values of BEST (which include “Improvement” and “Learning”), show that unless volunteers are involved as soon as possible into projects it cannot be expected of them to achieve a high performance. This proves once again that Volunteers must get far greater satisfaction from their accomplishments and make a greater contribution precisely because they do not get a pay check.

Execution of plans

The execution of plans happens mostly online since the team members are scattered across Europe. This is not a problem since the online communication is a daily part of a BESTie’s life. When an issue appears though, neither is the original schedule adjusted, nor is the project completed inside its initial timeline. There are several issues that may appear, some examples will be presented here. To begin with, having a matrix structure implies that many people from departments or other bodies are involved in projects. However, many BESTies have the mindset that the project they coordinate or the department they are working in is the most important inside BEST and therefore, every person required at any point should instantly focus on it. As a result, many delays take place since people would rather follow their plans than divert their focus on a project that requires their involvement at this point. Dependency management could be an interested field to analyse here. Moreover, the lack of buffer time while planning the project strips the project of flexibility that would be useful in such situations. The effect is quite clear: deadlines are being pushed which does not only delay a project but may jeopardise its outcomes as well.

Monitoring of a project

Regarding the monitoring of the project’s progression, one thing is pretty clear. Key Performance Indicators is a hard tool to implement in BEST. The biggest issue is that there is no baseline and therefore, nothing to compare projects and outcomes with. An attempt is happening every year since everyone in a leading position inside BEST understands the importance of this, there has been no success though. What has not been tried yet and might be successful, is to establish some basic indicators even if they are not the optimal ones and then keep improving them as time passes. Targeting the perfect set of indicators (either inside each project or generally as an organisation) will hardly work when talking about a group of students with almost no knowledge or professional background on the topic.

4. Project Close

According to theory, and one could argue common sense as well, an evaluation of the project’s outcomes, as well as the way the initial plan was followed, is of significant importance. Reality inside BEST is different here as well. After several intense months of working on a project, it is often that project coordinators are not motivated to conduct the project evaluation. It could even be argued that they do not consider this a part of their work description. In other occasions, responsibilities outside BEST affect the availability of project coordinators who end up leaving BEST and moving on in their lives. Such evaluations would be more than beneficial inside student organisations since there is lack of professional help and improvement based on past experiences is the main source of development.

Moreover, the theory mentions storage of all relevant documents for a project. Throughout the life of a project, there is (or better say should be) regular reporting of its progress; how milestones were achieved, delays or other issues faced, outcomes. A template is being used for this reporting and these reports are stored on PA. However, without a person to analyse and disseminate the “lessons learned”, this information is not put in use unless someone digs it up in the future. This job could be added to the responsibilities of the Vice President for Projects.

To sum up, the mindset of BESTies is that reporting is a waste of time since the reporting process it time consuming and they cannot see any direct benefits from allocating time there. This causes procrastination and makes it challenging to convince people to report their work in a proper way.

General reflections

One of the biggest differences between volunteer organisations and the corporate world is the motives of people. While in a company it is expected from employees to perform as agreed upon, the same does not apply for volunteer organisations. Moreover, in case a volunteer leaves the organisation, a lot of knowledge and experience leaves with him. And since the average time that volunteers spend inside BEST is around 3,5 years, the tacit knowledge they managed to acquire through their experiences in the organisation fades out without managing to reach its full potential. Furthermore, since the project coordinators change every year, no matter how much effort is put in the knowledge transfer from the previous to the next coordinator or team, these people will only be prepared to deal with a project or task after they actually perform it, whether they fail or succeed at it.

Another human-related difference, is that in comparison with the corporate world where project leaders are usually experienced and knowledgeable in their fields, in BEST the criteria while selecting a person for a position are the following: knowledge on the project, experience in leadership or team-work, motivation, availability and potential of this candidate. In many cases, there are no knowledgeable people applying for a position since these members have most probably already performed something similar in the organisation and are not challenged by repeating an analogous task. This results in selecting a person which shows motivation and potential. Whether this person actually manages the work is not known until the project comes to an end or in many occasions the person resign from this position. In this case, the responsibility of carrying on this project falls upon a member of the board and a natural consequence is overloading this member which later on causes several issues in the organisation and the person itself.

Lastly, due to lack of experience, the planning phase can take too long for some projects with the ultimate goal to predict every little details of the project. The final result though is spending too much time on planning and not enough time on actually performing it. An obvious example here is the PWS project which aimed to create a new public website for the organisation. It was planned to last 1 year (the planning itself took a few months), in the end it lasted 3 years changing 3 coordinators, one of them almost resigning. This links again to the human aspect of the organisation since it is almost impossible to predict for how long people will stay inside the organisation, the quality of their work and their reliability.

Concluding, volunteer student NGOs have some limitations which should be accepted. Their nonprofit nature though provides a strong connection among volunteers, who identify theirselves inside the organisation's mission. [9] Nonetheless, establishing a framework to support project management in such organisations could have long-term benefits for the organisation and should be considered. Some recommended focus areas to start working upon would be: Preparation of project coordinators, Planning and setting SMART goals, Dependency management, Project reporting, Risk management.

Future Reading

Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community, Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, 3rd Edition, INTERPUB GROUP, 2011

This book examines different sides of a successful volunteer program, from planning and organising to measuring effectiveness. It includes several examples from different counties, sample forms and worksheets for daily work with volunteers and overall focuses on the unique aspects of working effectively with staff who do not receive monetary compensation.

Annotated Bibliography

Project Management Institute, (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide). PMI Publications. [1]

This is a recognised standard for project management. It reflects the collaboration and knowledge of working project managers and provides the fundamentals of project management as they apply to a wide range of projects. It gives project managers the needed tools to practice project management and deliver organizational results.

BEST Annual Report 2014/15. [5]

the Annual Report provides an overview of the organisation. More specifically and in relation to this wiki page, the following can be found:

  • Information on the previous structure of BEST (page 9)
  • General overview of the LTSP of BEST (page 17)
  • Information regarding the change of structure (page 19)
  • Details regarding the services of the organisation (pages 25-39)

Drucker, P. F., (1989), What Business Can Learn from Nonprofits, Harvard Business Review. [9]

This article focuses on the differences between nonprofit organisations and the corporate world. It provides several examples where nonprofits succeed over companies in specific areas and summarises key lessons to be learned on this topic.

BEST Private Area. [4]

The following information was retrieved from the working website of BEST:

  • Documents explaining the old and new structure of the organisation.
  • Project reports of completed past projects.
  • The template used for the reporting of projects.

PA is not publicly accessible. The author of this wiki page should be contacted to access any of the pre-mentioned documents.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 The Project Management Institute, (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide), 4th Edition. PMI Publications.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Board of European Students of Technology Public Website.
  3. 3.0 3.1 BEST Career Day.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Private Area of BEST.
  5. 5.0 5.1 BEST Annual Report 2014/15. Available online.
  6. Definition of the word "volunteer".
  7. Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, PMI Mumbai Chapter, training course materials. Accessed September 2016. Available online.
  8. Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L., (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist, 55(1): 68–78. Available online.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Drucker, P. F., (1989), What Business Can Learn from Nonprofits, Harvard Business Review. Available online.
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