Group of employees stacking hands. Ailing Programs require your attention.

Ailing Programs Require Your Attention

As you review monthly, quarterly and annual financials, are you distressed by the outcomes of one of your nonprofit’s programs? Do you further suspect that the funds being poured into this program might be better spent elsewhere?

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Weigh program effectiveness

It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to keep programs long after they’ve stopped being effective. But a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude can prevent your organization from meeting its mission. Community and membership needs change, and your nonprofit must change with them.

Instead of relying on assumptions and anecdotes about your programs’ effectiveness, use the following tools to arrive at the facts:

  • Surveys Question participants, members, donors, employees, volunteers and other stakeholders about which of your not-for-profit’s programs are the most—and the least—effective and why.
  • Demographic data Collect and review your community’s demographic data for changes relevant to your program offerings.
  • Community input Ask community leaders and others with their ears to the ground, such as journalists, whether they know of unmet needs or have spotted trends that should inform your programming decisions in the future.  

You may get mixed responses about the same program, so consider your sources. Employees and volunteers who work directly with program participants are more likely to know if your current efforts are off target than is a donor who simply attends fundraising events once or twice a year. On the other hand, you can’t afford to alienate financial supporters. Be sure to let all stakeholders know how much you value their input, regardless of the decisions you ultimately make.

Measure outcomes via metrics

You already should have goals in place for each program and systems to measure their progress. Specific metrics will vary according to the program, but your evaluation systems should be strategic, realistic and timely. Measured outcomes can include the number of individuals or families served, the cost per participant and specific program results.

A charity that, for example, provides day care to low-income, single-parent families might measure the program’s success by tracking the stability of the parents’ employment. A hospital evaluating its annual community health fair could compare year-over-year attendance and number of health screenings per fair.

It’s important to apply several measures to a program, including subjective ones, before deciding whether to cut it or fund it. Numerical data might suggest that a program isn’t worth the money spent on it, but those who benefit from it may be so passionate and vocal about its success that eliminating the program would likely harm your reputation.

Identify obsolete programs

After reviewing your research, you may find that it’s easier to identify obsolete programs than to decide on new ones. If one of your programs is clearly ineffective and another is wildly exceeding expectations, the decision to redeploy funds to the successful program is simple. But what if you discover that none of your programs are particularly effective and you need some fresh initiatives?

Keep in mind that new programs can be variations of old ones. But they must better serve your nonprofit’s basic mission, values and goals—while making the best use of the funding available. Be careful to avoid repeating old mistakes.

Say, for example, that you failed to adequately publicize your adult literacy program’s free after-work classes last spring and, as a result, only a handful of people took advantage of them. Now, you’re developing a weekend program for learners of English as a second language. Be sure to allocate part of your budget to advertising so that this program doesn’t suffer the same fate as the last one.

Join forces

Here’s another scenario: Let’s say that you’ve crunched the numbers—several times—and decided that your not-for-profit simply can’t afford to continue funding a two-year-old program that has shown promise but has yet to yield quantifiable results.

Before you write it out of your budget, look around. Charities with similar missions may be willing and eager to join forces with you to keep a promising program going.

Moving ahead

A not-for-profit’s programs are often near and dear to the hearts of the organization’s leaders, employees and constituents. But continuous evaluation — and knowing if it’s time to pull the plug—is a part of the process of good management.

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