Sunday, March 07, 2010

How Proof of Concept Can Improve Fundraising for a New Program and What Proof of Concept Is

When a nonprofit organization is either launching a brand new program or project; of if a new nonprofit organization, itself, is beginning it is extremely powerful to raise funds (including grant writing and other methods) in part by providing a proof of concept that clearly demonstrates the efficiency, viability, and strong potential of the new program or organization.

Proof of concept means formulating a very similar or exact replica (or model) of an established similar program, organization, or innovation that works, when replicated demonstrates that this new project (or nonprofit) that is being implemented (or launched) works elsewhere. For instance, let's say that you and I are launching a brand new mentoring program at a local community college. We are going to pair local volunteer business people with our college students whose grades are suffering, in the afternoons, so that that the students receive tutoring, improving their grades.

Let me interrupt my example for just a moment to point out that it is often the case that new nonprofits or brand new programs are launched with the best intentions to address a current and as yet unmet issue. Whether a brand new program or agency succeeds at its new effort is the result of several things, such as, how well designed the new undertaking is (how well it truly addresses the needs of the beneficiaries in their experience), how well it is supported by its community (i.e. volunteer hours, financial or in kind contributions, community partners, etc.), and ultimately the results it actually delivers (does the new endeavor actually work or does it not do what it set out to). A nonprofit that has a proof of concept for its not yet launched new work allows that nonprofits to demonstrate the actual potential of its new program or agency because it can point to another nonprofit, elsewhere, that has conducted either the same (such as when an organization replicates what is called a model program) or a very similar recent program. The power in having this recent previous success story to point to is that (ideally) there is verifiable (quantifiable) data on the previous program's: participants (such as demographics that demonstrate the need that exists), results, outcomes (perhaps determined through anonymous client surveys and their findings); and a clear program design that has already gone through the benefit of being conducted, having its results reviewed, and the benefit of having improvements being made to that program after each review.

Back to my example... Perhaps the need for our mentoring program came out of several of our community college's professors coming to us saying you know, we have a few students slipping through the cracks, who don't need to be. We think that if they had both extra tutoring outside of class but also the benefit (from whomever tutors them) of increasing these students' self confidence, their grades would improve. Sadly, but understandably, our professors explained that they are concerned for these kids but only have so much time to give per student and the relationship necessary to potentially assist develop a student's self esteem is not available to them. So, before we begin to dream up a solution to this issue, we decide to conduct some research. You and I each speak to colleagues working at other community colleges, research the latest study findings in our professional journals in studies related to this very issue, and even speak to a few counselors at different local high schools and ask what they are doing to deal with this issue. Once we find some examples of actual programs that are working elsewhere, we begin to research these potential model programs that each have operated long enough and enough results and findings have been gathered from each, and also what their expenses are, what lessons they learned, etc. to help inform us in our work. Once we have gathered enough data, we sit down with our community college's curriculum designers, social workers, a few student representatives from the school's Associated Student Body, some of the concerned professors, and a few of the would-be volunteer business people from our community. This is our brand new Mentoring Program Committee. As a committee we conduct the research, discussion, and planning necessary to design, budget, fund, and implement our new Mentoring Program.

Having proof of concept provides not just potential donors but also others, including the nonprofit itself, with a certain amount of confidence, despite it either itself being a brand new operation or despite a program being completely new to an organization. In our example, above, our school's administrators, educators, and executives feel a certain amount of confidence in this new program because we have demonstrated that it should work.

(Ideally, at least a year or two before it is started so that we have money available to pay for at least its first year budget before it begins), when we begin to raise funds for this new program, we are coming from a very compelling standpoint. Having proof of concept can inform our communication with potential donors with demonstrable proof of potential success (the data that our committee gathered from other similar successful student/business people volunteers mentoring programs) to include when we write appeal letters, perhaps; or when we write grant proposals; or to include in our executives' conversations with potential major donors. Donors who feel confident not just about the nonprofit that they are supporting but also about the potential of a new program are comfortable giving. It's the same with other types of supporters, such as volunteers, etc.

Finally, when the nonprofit advertises its new program to its beneficiaries, (if the program is one that the beneficiaries attend such as in this example), the proof of concept can be included in the program's brochure and other press releases and marketing to instill confidence. If the posters on campus, for the new program, say something, for example, like, 'based on similar successful programs at other schools' when describing the program indicates to attendees that the program has proven effective for others.

Having proof of confidence frankly saves a lot of time, trial and error, the expenses that come with that, and the risk of a nonprofit losing its credibility over a potential program that does not work, ultimately. Not all new programs or organizations need be replicated from other programs, of course; but one way to both save resources and instill confidence among a nonprofit's constituency (its community) and its beneficiaries (in the example, here, the students) is to have, from the outset, a proof of concept.

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