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Nonprofit Burnout? Consider a Program Audit

A nonprofit program often takes on a life of its own. Sometimes staff members become more committed to the program than to the overall organization and its goals. This is evident when staff members ignore customer needs and preferences in the interest of maintaining the status quo. The focus of a nonprofit’s entrepreneurial activities should be on what they already do best? The challenge for most nonprofits is to first understand the scope of its existing programming and then to evaluate the relative effectiveness of each distinct program.

Identifying Programs
A program is a cluster of activities performed on a regular basis to achieve an outcome for a specific audience. It may be a direct service, a workshop, a publication, an exhibition or a performance. For example, a nonprofit may have a nutrition education program for pregnant teenagers, or a museum may have an outreach program for elementary school teachers.

The key to defining a program is identifying its specific audience. There is a tendency among nonprofit managers, however, to consider programs by function or administrative unit rather than by audience. Instead of viewing nutrition education for pregnant teenagers as a distinct program, nonprofits often cluster nutrition education programs for all ages and population sectors as a single program. Recruiting, engaging and motivating pregnant teenagers to eat healthily requires very different marketing and delivery strategies than a nutrition program for senior citizens. A museum may be view outreach to teachers, senior citizens and ethnic minorities as a single program, when in fact each activity requires very different content, marketing strategies and scheduling. While administratively it may make sense to have the same staff involved with similar programs, clustering often obscures customer needs and other marketing considerations.

Evaluating Programs
The next step is to evaluate the relative effectiveness of each program. Several matrixes, like Philip Kotler’s Product and Market Opportunity Matrix and Jerr Boschee’s Mission/Money Matrix can be very useful in evaluating a program. With the latter, staff and board rate each program with respect to its relative need by customer or community and its ability to raise revenues from a variety of sources. Those that have relatively low need and high cost to the nonprofit should be considered for abandonment.

According to Peter F. Drucker, “organized abandonment” is an activity in which all businesses and organizations, including nonprofits, should be regularly engaged. It relates to the organization’s continual efforts to constantly improve and innovate. Nonprofits that fall into an “activity trap”, frequently lead with their hearts rather than their heads. Staff members become frantic and overworked and never build the requisite infrastructure that will make the organization sustainable in the long-term. Board and staff should ask themselves, “What do we do best?” and “Are we the best or the second best at providing this service or product in the area?” If the answer to the second question is, “No,” the nonprofit needs to ask, “What would it take to be the best or second best?” Perhaps a program should be transferred to a nonprofit organization that does it better. Recognizing that nonprofits have limited financial and human resources that may be better applied to other efforts, a program audit and organized abandonment can provide focus and energy to a nonprofit to innovate and do better what it already does best.

Just because a service is expensive and loses money for the organization, however, does not necessarily mean that the program should be abandoned. This is especially true if there is a significant need and the organization is the only one meeting it. Indeed, the balance of heart and money is one of the primary reasons that nonprofits exist in the first place.

, “Building Sustainable Nonprofits Through Social Entrepreneurship” by Lynn Shelby Kickingbird
©Nonprofit Governance and Management, American Bar Association, 2002.

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