Updated: Dec 2, 2021
👋 Goodbye post-its and task lists in Google Sheets. A task management app can help you take your charity startup to the next level. Asana is a great choice for your nonprofit, as we point out in our article on productivity. You even get a steep discount as an organization within the effective altruist (EA) movement (through the EA Hub). Well-known competitors include Monday, Clickup, Notion, and Trello.
Trello is the most restricted in terms of features, not going far beyond a Canva board for tasks. We therefore do not recommend it.
Monday is a close competitor to Asana. It is a bit more visual, and recently introduced shared docs.
Notion takes even a step further and aims at replacing various tools, from tasks to Google Sheets and databases. However, it offers fewer options in terms of managing tasks.
We opted for Asana because it is well-established in the EA community and many staff members and partners are used to working with it. In the end, it isn’t that important which tool you pick as long as your team sticks to it. The worst is to move from one app to the other, or to run your task management system on multiple platforms at the same time. Don’t go for a spreadsheet task list, some tasks shared on Slack, and others saved in Todoist when you can have it all on one platform: Asana. Here are a few tips from CE staff and Family Empowerment Media on how to use Asana effectively on a daily basis. These are basic suggestions that increase your efficiency without you needing to understand Asana in-depth.
1. SPEND SUFFICIENT TIME OUTLINING A PROJECT STRUCTURE THAT WORKS FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION
Why learn to use Asana? It seems so easy - one click and a new task is ready. While the barrier to entry is low, it pays off to think through how you should structure your task management app. Start by going through Asana’s guide and then outline your nonprofit’s project structure.
Source: the Asana guide.
How many Teams do you need to set up for your organization? (If you work through the EA Hub’s Asana account, your organization is essentially one Team. If you get your own independent account, you have the option to set up multiple teams, e.g., departments within your organization). Less complexity is often better. As a small org., sticking to one Team on Asana works well.
The next layer in Asana is Projects. The temptation here is to create too many projects, which can quickly get confusing, especially if some of them are infrequently used. As a small endeavor, say, an EA Chapter, it can also make sense to only use one Project initially and work with Sections to separate sub-projects (e.g., Events, Members, …). This allows the team to keep all tasks in one place, the Project, so everything is visible on one page. However, as you grow, this becomes too limiting. A typical setup for an established org like a charity could be to use a Project per Department: Operations, Program, Communications, etc (1).
(1) If you are on the EA Hub Asana account and cannot use multiple Teams for this purpose.
2. DON’T OVERUSE THE BOARD VIEW, AND GO WITH LIST VIEW AS A STANDARD
Each Project has its standard way of displaying tasks. Teams often use the Board view, which separates the screen into stages. This can make sense if you work through chronological standard processes (e.g., an editing workflow). Most projects, however, will be more suited to the List view. So, use the List view (pictured below) as your standard.
Source: Trish Tormey & Jenny Thai’s “Introducing the new project List View: More clarity, less clutter.” for the Asana blog, Oct. 9, 2019.
3. USE SUBTASKS, NOT TASKS, WHENEVER POSSIBLE (TO AVOID CLUTTER)
Clearly distinguish between tasks and subtasks. For example, you might have a few things to prepare to host an online workshop for potential donors. If you add a task for each of them, you quickly end up with a long, cluttered list. Instead, create one task, “Online Workshop,” in the project and use subtasks for each preparatory step.
Source: Julia Martins’ “Asana tips: When and how to use subtasks.” for the Asana blog, Nov. 17, 2020.
4. USE TASKS FOR TIMECAPPING
Subtasks aren’t just a helpful way to narrow down your tasks. They also allow you to timecap your work, i.e., define a specific time slot to implement that task. This helps you get done more quickly. Instead of having a subtask like, for example, “Legal Question X,” use “Write first draft for lawyer about legal question X.” Furthermore, such timecapped tasks can easily be added to your calendar, so you actually define a particular time in the day to implement them. This is done in the field where you define the deadline (e.g., 19 Sept, 6-7pm). Your task now shows up under Calendar view, and you can also export the whole Project as a calendar stream to your Google Calendar. (Unfortunately, this only works with tasks, not subtasks.)
5. USE THE TIMELINE FOR PLANNING
The timeline view is ideal for work planning, as it gives you a visual representation of your tasks within time. Moreover, you can use “dependencies” to connect tasks that depend on each other. If one task is pushed back, any dependent follow-up tasks are automatically moved as well. Family Empowerment Media has a look at the timeline with the team each week to review which tasks cannot be moved (as they would push back many connected tasks). For example, without preparing an important contract by Wednesday, negotiations cannot be finalized by Friday.
Source: the Asana guide.
6. CREATE A CUSTOM TIMELINE PROJECT
Asana’s Timeline view is super helpful. However, currently, it only displays tasks, not subtasks. If you frequently work with subtasks and timelines, it might be worth it to set up a new project with a Timeline view. Then, you add each task and subtask to both your normal project and the Timeline project so they are visible in the two versions at once.
7. ORGANIZE YOUR MY TASKS OVERVIEW
The “My Tasks” overview is where you see all your tasks. This will be a combination of your personal tasks that nobody can see plus all the tasks from public Projects. If you don’t figure out a My Tasks setup that works for you, you might easily find Asana frustrating. Thankfully, Asana has recently introduced various ways to customize My Tasks. The easiest way is to simply sort the List by Due Date. This works well if you use Asana primarily for one organization. If you need more structure, you can introduce sections (e.g., order by theme, scope, …). For more advanced setups, you can consider introducing rules for how tasks behave within My Tasks (e.g., moving automatically from Due Later to Due Today when the deadline approaches).
Source: Zaraida Diaz & Julia Martins’ “New: My Tasks makes it easier to organize your work, your way” for the Asana blog, Sept. 10, 2021.
8. USE TASK TEMPLATES FOR FREQUENT TASK TYPES
Frequent tasks can be turned into templates. For example, you might often have a task that includes subtasks for each of your team members to follow up. Instead of creating each follow-up subtask separately, you can have it all ready to go - with one click.
9. USE THE FORM VIEW TO START STANDARD PROCESSES
Asana lets you build forms that feed into a project overview (similar to a “Google Form” feeding into a spreadsheet). This can be handy, for example, for approval workflows. Team members can submit a document for review through an Asana form where they fill out pre-defined questions (making sure all necessary information is captured). The form entry then turns into a new, well-structured task.
Source: the Asana guide.
10. USE AUTOMATED EMAIL REMINDERS
If you run large teams with staff unaccustomed to task management apps, automated emails are useful. Instead of manually following up with team members, you can set Asana to automatically send a daily task update each morning. Make sure that staff have “Daily Summaries” under Notifications in their Profile Settings active. For more frequent and consistent users, it might be a good idea to turn that feature off to reduce unnecessary emails.
11. AVOID CUSTOM ITEMS IF YOU DON’T REALLY NEED THEM
The professional version of Asana lets you set up custom elements, e.g., tags. It can be really handy to customize the task manager to your organization’s needs. At the same time, think twice before you introduce custom elements. In most cases, your needs can be met with the standard features. And your Asana can get a bit cluttered if you introduce seemingly helpful custom elements that go unused (but still show up throughout the app).
12. GO FOR THE ASANA APP INSTEAD OF THE BROWSER VERSION
Keep in mind that working in the Asana app is quicker and smoother than working through a browser tab. For example, it lets you more easily switch between apps. If you have a personal favorite Asana or task management tip, feel free to add it in the comments. We’d love to hear more ideas for improving our efficiency! If you are interested in additional tips about running a charity, sign up for our newsletter.