Sunday, June 02, 2013

Is Your Nonpnrofit Providing Enough Or Too Many Programs? Too, How Does A Start Up Nonprofit Know How Many Programs To Open With?

In the economy that we've been living in for the past six years, it may seem unnecessary to state that a nonprofit need not overextend itself and its operations by offering too many programs or services, but of course some organization do so.

All nonprofit organization provide programs, or services, or products (or some combination of all three) to deliver the agency's mission statement's goal to the intended beneficiaries it serves.  Programs are the crux of the organization's reason for existing, where it either succeeds or not, and ideally where most of each dollar raised is spent.  The programs any organization provides are why it exists and how it delivers what it does to the targeted population it serves.  The key to noticing what is an over-programmed organization is in beginning with answering the following: How many programs does the single nonprofit offer?  How often are is each program offered in a single year?  What is each program's design and intended outcomes?  What is the scope of each program's service, goals, and intended outcomes?  What are the complete budgets for each program (including dollars raised and expenses)?  Staffing and/or volunteers for each program?  Locations?  Overhead expense for each?  Is enough money truly going to be raised this year and next year to confidently operate the organization and all of its programs?  Is there enough expertise and talent on the organization's board and among its staff to be effective in an efficient manner for all of the programs provided?  And so on...

Yours' may be a nonprofit that is indeed offering too many programs and you or other leadership may not even realize it.

How might a nonprofit's leadership be oblivious to overextending how many programs it offers?  Usually it is because a nonprofit's leadership does not regularly evaluate whether each of its programs are relevant, effective, and being operated efficiently (of course not realizing it perhaps because they are new to nonprofit operations oversight, or perhaps because they are not evaluating beneficiaries' needs annually to compare evaluations' findings to the organization's programming planning for the coming year in order to make adjustments as findings indicate are needed, or other possible reasons (anything from an operational culture of not addressing operations issues, to comfort in the status quo, to top-down leadership that is controlling rather than open/listening and collaborative with its team, and so on)).

(To jump to the specifics on how start up nonprofits, specifically, can avoid over-programming, go to the fourth paragraph before the final one, below).

Whether regular oorganizational self evaluation of operations and programs are conducted at all is an indication of a well: managed, overseen, and operated nonprofit (one worthy of any beneficiary's or supporter's confidence in its programming and leadership's abilities to run the organization in a lean but effective fashion).  For this reason and more, regular (usually annual) programs (and operations) evaluations for all programs and operations are professional, nonprofit, best practices.  Findings from regular professionally conducted and tallied self evaluations enables leadership to see what the nonprofit actually accomplished and from this information leadership can begin to determine what is needed to better (more effectively and efficiently) accomplish its mission's goal.  Any organization that conducts regular self evaluations can honestly understand: where every cent has been spent; what the actual outcomes of each program are; what operations, programs, budgeting, and other lessons have been learned and what solutions to those issues have worked and why those were efficient and effective fixes; who (or what) is being actually served and how often; whether the beneficiary's mission-related needs are truly being served; whether the nonprofit is best serving the beneficiary in the most efficient and effective manner possible; whether the organization (per its mission statement and per the beneficiary's real current needs) is relevant or effective; and where growth is needed to be planned into the organization's programming, budget, staffing, and operations; ideally what new board members with which practical experience and skill sets would best serve the nonprofit today and tomorrow given its (board ratified) goals and vision; any organizational policy, programs, and growth planning; and so on.  In other words, there is no reason for any nonprofit (from small and only volunteer run to world-wide and led by some of the most powerful people on the planet at the executive level) to not be self evaluating regularly.  It would be foolish not to.

Also, each possible finding listed above, again when regularly considered based on actual results, provides a nonprofit's leader with the chance to check what the organization's programs are doing (or not accomplishing) against the mission statement, current operations goals, organizational vision and values, and so on (which should have all been formally board developed and then ratified).  Each organizational self evaluation finding provides any nonprofit's leadership (once checked and actual results have been tabulated and reviewed by the leadership) with a current and verifiable picture of all of the organization's deeds (as findings should come from actual tallied program results and anonymous beneficiary survey feedback and demographic data immediately after each and all programs are delivered (usually conducted according to the nonprofit's service's professional field's own best practices standards).  This what is necessary in order to know what's real, what's needed, and where the organization should go or hold back.

Just as important, after each regional (for the geographic region that the organization serves) study or survey - the nonprofit's  leadership should go through the findings if not the raw data (as it pertains to the organization's mission and programs' goals).  If a nonprofit's leadership does not regularly look at the latest anonymous, representative, and as comprehensive as possible data for the demographics and current or coming needs for their beneficiary population - how does a nonprofit's leadership know whether their organization's programs are still relevant and where new current or coming needs lie?

Finally, If an organization only considers evaluations of its programs without comparing those findings regularly to the latest data on the beneficiary population and its current needs - how does the leadership know what programs are still relevant and what new (mission-based) directions the organization may wish to grow into based on newly discovered (mission-related) needs?

So, after actual outcomes, beneficiaries' current conditions and needs, and actual program results are understood - only then can any organization's leadership make clear, informed, and intelligent decisions based on the nonprofit's mission as to what is in the best interest of its beneficiaries and the nonprofit itself. 

For example, if a most recent programs evaluation reveals that, compared to the previous year's evaluation for the exact program, the number of beneficiaries served is way down - something needs to be investigated and likely improvements are needed or the program itself may no longer be effective or even worth delivering anymore (especially if, say, the cost of this program has increased in the past year).

Or if a nonprofit provides a total of five programs and this year all of the organization's programs' evaluations found that all services have been achieving their intended outcomes and goals and efficiently but, say, a never before served age group is no longer receiving these services from a recently and now defunct separate nonprofit (that used to provide the service to them but has recently folded).  In this case, maybe, as this is a newly discovered, current, and currently unmet need among your nonprofit's target beneficiary population that (because it is directly related to the organization's mission) your nonprofit's leadership decides to research and consider providing these (new) services to this additional (and new) age group next iteration or occurrence of the program.

Or, if a nonprofit conducts a program and discovers if is meeting its intended goal and outcomes but could be run more efficiently - perhaps instead of the nonprofit operating vans and busing participants to the program's location (which the most recent evaluation for the program discovered is a growing expense but one that could be easily reduced by half or more) it decides to find a location for the program to be provided next time that is right in the participants' neighborhood, or easily reached by a main bus line, or the nonprofit chooses to drive participants to the program site location but the number of times each program is held, next time, will be reduced by half (compared to this past year) but will be held for twice the duration in time (so, for example, if this year each program was one hour - next year it will be a two hour event that occurs half the number of times it was held this year - effectively reducing the transportation cost to the nonprofit by half).

Of course, there are all other kinds of possibilities but the above are just some examples demonstrating how helpful evaluations are when and organization considers all of its programs.

Of course, no nonprofit should try to do it all.  Yes, we all care about our organization's beneficiaries but the scope or extent to which we can assist is determined by how fast our organization can grow and what direction each organization's leadership deems it should grow in.  No one wants to take unnecessary risks or over-do it.  Why?  It doesn't make for effective or efficient programs or nonprofits.  Further, you want to avoid mission-drift.  You want to stay on mission and remain efficient and effective.

Start up nonprofits, in particular, are often 'guilty' of offering too many programs at the organization's launch.  Often this is more an indication of the agency's leadership's greenness perhaps not knowing how to design programs, or operating a nonprofit organization for effectiveness and efficiency.  Sometimes, though, a nonprofit's founders are simply trying to do too much for the beneficiaries, and overextending and overly-taxing the organization's ability to be effective, successful, and able to fund itself before it even opens the door to the public.  Finally, some start up nonprofits' founders simply do not know what they're doing on one or more fronts (from meeting actual real needs effectively and efficiently, to understanding operations and what a healthy nonprofit requires to operate and then also eventually grow, and so on).

If the organization is finding that all of its programs are successful and are truly needed (no other entity is providing the program or as well) the issue may be funding.  This, unfortunately, is probably more common that not.  Not raising enough can be a sign that the organization has overextended itself programmaticly but it's also possible to look at he situation as one needing equally serious but different attention.  Fundraising must always be planned out (before a given fiscal year) such that the organization will truly raise everything needed in the operations budget for that year (and hopefully a bit more to save or hold for emergency funds).  If, though, a nonprofit discovers through program evaluations that all really is well (intended outcomes are met,the target beneficiaries, themselves, are sharing (anonymously through surveys) that the service is needed, it really helps, and indications are that the need is not going away anytime soon) then there may be a need to address lacking fundraising rather than ending programs.  This is a growing pain just as much as over-programming but just like over-programming must be addressed head on right away.

How can a brand new nonprofit organization that is going to begin operations, let's say, in six to twelve months from now plan out its operations and growth so that it knows whether the number of or scope of the programs it plans to serve will not be overextending the nonprofit (without having the benefit of conducting programs or organizational self evaluations yet, of course, as it is not yet operating)? 

Any start up nonprofit's founders must be listening and learning and learning and listening and then more of both.  They should be networking, surveying for the geographic region that will be served what similar and related other nonprofit, for-profit, and government agencies are operating and what they are doing for the target beneficiary population, they should also be reading recent pertinent professional studies' findings, reading recent surveys' demographics findings that pertain to the target beneficiary population, and studying what similar other nonprofits that operate elsewhere that have been operating successfully meeting their mission's goals well are doing (or not doing), and more.  The learning curve of any start up nonprofit's founders is steep and ongoing.  They must listen and absorb and they must trust reputable experts.  Professionals with impressive, qualified, and ethical reputations, experience, and credentials in different pertinent fields must be brought on board as either volunteers or board members to be consulted with in designing the organization's mission, to plan out fundraising, develop the nonprofit's bylaws and basic values and policies, and to allow them to design programs.  Once the dream team is assembled (the founders or start up team) people must be trusted to carry through on their assignments and not micro-managed, but rather enabled to do what they need to do.  The result of all of this professionalism is that the true picture of the actual field and what is going on at the moment in the region as it pertains to the new organization's mission and its beneficiaries current but not yet met needs can be best (and in the cheapest fashion) determined.  Where there are unmet needs that match up with the organization's mission and only there is where the new start up should begin considering and studying which programs to provide and how often and for whom.  A nonprofit that wishes to succeed and then grow only need open shop with one program.  If it can sustain them and guarantee effective success for the beneficiaries than more than one is fine if the start up nonprofit has say conducted a fundraising feasibility study and determined from it that the interest in supporting a specific program(s) exists.  In other words - even start up non-profits must have development plans (even before opening the doors) that is truly going to cover all operations expenses for the coming year.  Too, there is no point in replicating other nonprofit organizations' programs especially if those nonprofits are providing real results.  This would not only be a waste for the community but it would be a shame for the beneficiaries who likely need real help regarding a related but different as yet unmet need.  No one finds a nonprofit relevant that is not serving a population that has a real need or not meeting that need effectively and efficiently (from beneficiaries, to donors, to community partners, and so on).

The best way for any organization to know whether it is providing the right number of programs or services for its organization is for it to annually look at its beneficiaries' real current need (that relates to the nonprofit's mission), and regularly evaluate each of its programs and consider all findings and then also compare current findings to current needs and intended outcomes with results.  The organization may not be ready or able, yet, to address all of the beneficiary population's needs that exist that directly relates to its mission statement but that's fine.  It does not have to.  No nonprofit can do it all because no nonprofit can do it all effectively and efficiently.  What any nonprofit does have to do is be able to afford and sustain its successful programs that are actually providing needed results effectively and efficiently today and the organization has to be staffed and run such that it will be able to provide this quality again tomorrow and in the future.

No comments: