-A +A

Imagine Canada

Strong Charities. Strong Communities.

Improving Nonprofit Process Management with Workflow Diagrams

Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Guest Writers
Aakifah Luthfee
Multi-coloured lights in tunnel

A business process is a set of activities that fulfill an organizational goal and are useful whether you are a for-profit, nonprofit or charity. There are many types of processes, which vary based on your operations. These can be management, operational or support-role based.  

Trying to explain what you do from A-Z in any work procedure can be daunting. Often we do these processes intuitively, without thinking about each individual action we are taking. Or you may have a ‘go-to person’ to help tackle issues or answer unique questions. A workflow diagram can help you present your process in a way that anyone can understand, explain or take part in.     

A workflow diagram is a blueprint that communicates how tasks move between teams and resources. Creating one requires a bit of time and effort to capture everything. Most nonprofits have small teams with a lot on their plates, so this may seem like an inefficient use of time. But the time invested up front can help you improve productivity in the end.

The Benefits You Gain 

By making time to capture your organizational process in a workflow diagram you can:

Easily communicate your process. Your diagram will explain your procedure in a clear and concise way. This makes it easier to discuss with an employee, new hire or external stakeholder.

Teach new employees and volunteers their roles faster. New employees and volunteers can better understand their roles within the organization. This can be especially vital when replacing a long-term employee.

Improve IT usage. When using technology tools, it’s common to use them for different tasks with no integration across an organization. A workflow diagram can help you look at the efficiency and profitability of your current operations and make improvements to streamline or automate resource-intensive tasks.

Be safe rather than sorry. You can flag areas where setbacks might occur and anticipate what could trigger them. Then you can devise contingency plans and be better prepared.  

What’s involved in preparing a workflow diagram

1. Identify a particular process you would like to analyze. This may seem like a no-brainer but it’s very easy to get lost in all the associated processes - so be specific!

2. Determine the start and end of this process. Focus in on the triggers that initiate and end the process. What do you do first? What does finishing look like?

3. List out all the departments or teams involved and talk to them. Talk to each person in charge of their related task. Ask them to define the steps they undertake. By talking to the source, you get a better sense of what to include to make sure no step is forgotten.

  • Who is involved?
  • What actions are taking place?
  • Where does each step occur? (ex. department)
  • When does each step occur and how do they connect?
  • Why are they (ex. individual, department or software) involved?

4. Write a description of the process.

After discussing what occurs with your colleagues, write it out step-by-step. Keep each step clear and concise. Flag steps based on a decision. These are usually questions with yes/no outcomes. Write out what steps follow each possible decision.

Example: Sam is the VP of Operations at ABC charity and is asked to map out the Volunteer Recruitment Process.

Tip: Try writing each department’s steps in table format.

Volunteer Applicant Volunteer Coordinator

Start: Fill out application form

End: If not selected: Receive email

If selected: Confirm availability for interview

Attend Interview

End: Receive acceptance details








Assess application

Decision: Should we select for interview?

If No: Send Thank You email

If Yes: Develop interview date options

If Yes: Send availability dates

If Yes: Finalize date

If Yes: Conduct interview

Decision: Should we recruit volunteer?

If No: Send Thank You email

If Yes: Send acceptance email and details

5. Review the description with colleagues involved in the process.

Share it with your colleagues for feedback. Once you have everyone’s seal of approval, you can head to the drawing board!

There are many types of workflow diagrams you can use to capture your process, such as basic flowcharts and overview diagrams. For many organizations, a lot of processes involve different departments or teams. In this case, one type of helpful diagram to connect it all is a Swim Lane Diagram.  


What does a Swim Lane Diagram Look Like?

A Swim Lane diagram has vertical (or horizontal) ‘lanes’ which represent each actor (ex. individual, department, system software, etc.) involved in the process. The following are symbols commonly used in this type of diagram: 

A circle or ovular shape represents the beginning or end of a process.

Rectangles show the activities that occur in the process.

A diamond is used to show a decision that needs to be made (typically yes or no but can vary if it needs to show multiple options).

Arrows are used to connect all the activities and show the direction they take from start to finish.

Lanes are vertical (or horizontal) columns to show the activities accomplished by an actor (commonly a department, team or individual).


With this in mind, here’s what our Volunteer Recruitment example looks like as a Swim Lane diagram:

Swim lane diagram

Brief and transparent, workflow diagrams are a great tool to improve process management. The Swim Lane diagram is one approach that offers an effective overview of the ins and outs of a process. There is some work and effort required but by doing so, you can strengthen a nonprofit’s operations to better support the communities it serves.

Additional Resources:


About the Author

Aakifah Luthfee

Aakifah Luthfee is a third year student at Ryerson University studying Business Technology Management. Last summer, she was the Standards Program Assistant at Imagine Canada. Currently, Aakifah is the Executive Speakers Coordinator at Ryerson Women in Leadership – a nonprofit that supports the advancement of women and gender equality, while encouraging students to become successful leaders. Find her on LinkedIn.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

Back to Blog Retour au blogue

Add new comment

Our National Partners

  • great west life
  • Lawson Foundation
  • Muttart Foundation
  • RBC Foundation
  • Suncor
  • TD Bank
  • investors group

Learn more about our National Partners and other supporters.

Charitable Registration Number: 119218790 RR0001