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  • Ryan Brooks

How do Nonprofits Know When to Shut Down a Program

It’s Hard to Say Goodbye: 4 Steps to Take to Know When to Sunset a Program or Service


Not too long ago, I got a letter from a nonprofit I have been involved with for many years sharing that they were running a significant deficit for one of their programs. They needed immediate donor assistance. This unfortunate circumstance made me think about the hard work nonprofits must do when it comes to sunsetting (i.e. closing) programs.


For this particular nonprofit, the program is central to its mission and identity, so this program will continue. But, it's challenging to make these decisions in a time of crisis. In this post, I'll explain how nonprofits can proactively think about sunsetting programs or services - so they can (hopefully) avoid making hard decisions in a moment of crisis.


How can nonprofits be more in charge of their destinies?  


If you have ever canceled or stopped a program, you know how painful it can be. There are staff and volunteers who will have questions about their roles and place in the organization. There are donors who may have strong opinions about the work you do. And most importantly, you may have to say, “I’m sorry - we can’t serve you in this way anymore” to a community you've long strived to support.


4 Step Process Decision Making Process


So how can nonprofits determine whether to stop a program? Here are four steps to help you do just that. Work through each step until you find your answer about what to do with a program. Under each one, there are real-life examples of programs that I have seen organizations stop or pause. Some details were changed to disguise the organizations and events described.


1. Review Your Mission and Vision 


Before doing any large organizational change - from strategic planning to staffing shifts - it is critical to revisit and affirm your organization’s mission and vision. Take the time to reflect on these.


  • What is your true mission?

  • What is the vision you are hoping to achieve?

  • Do they still match your organization’s realities, goals and future?


Thinking about your mission and vision, and updating if needed, puts you on firm footing to conduct the harder work ahead. 


Example: This example is from an organization that held an annual conference on nonprofit leadership every year. More than 200 would attend the conference to learn from each other and network. The conference brought the organization great name recognition across the state and was budget neutral (i.e. conference revenue equaled expenses). As the conference approached its10th year, the organization was (coincidentally) reviewing its mission during its strategic planning process.


It’s important to know that this nonprofit was focused on helping local nonprofits through consulting, assisting with legal questions, and so forth. A leadership conference made sense, but it was not core to their mission of supporting the local nonprofit community. After many hard conversations, the organization decided that the conference was not aligned closely enough to the mission of the organization. They never hosted their 10th conference.  


2. Gather Data and It Guide You


After you have ensured you understand and buy-in to your mission and vision, the next step is to gather your data. What does your data tell you about how successful the program is, who it is serving, where it is thriving, and how it is struggling?


If you have not been evaluating your programs, now is the time to start. For some easy ways to get started with evaluation check these posts:



If you need to make decisions quickly and don’t have time to collect any new data, take a look at the data you have. 


  • Are your service utilization numbers what you expect? 

  • Do you have any outcomes that match or don’t match the goals of the program? 

  • Does the program or service seem to be growing in popularity or declining?


You might not have this kind of data. That’s not ideal, but it’s still okay. Start to collect data now (there’s no time like the present!), gather your staff, volunteers, and/or clients to ask some easy and hard questions.


  • What is going well with this program?

  • Do you think it is working? 

  • What could be improved?


Try to distill your data into a few bullet points for the program(s) and service(s) under consideration. This gives you an easy reference guide. Try to be as objective as possible. Let the data tell you the good, bad, and potentially ugly. This will aid you in your next step.


Example: At a mental health support organization, there was a call by board members to do something different and something more. The solution was to create a "warm line" where individuals could call in and talk to someone if they were feeling lonely or struggling. A warm line is different from a hotline or lifeline, where individuals in serious distress reach-out for help (like 9-8-8), but offers some in between help. 


This initiative was celebrated with a lot of fanfare, and they worked hard to market the program to the community. After a few dozen calls in the first 6 months, the warm line went quiet. Despite continued advertising, in one six month period, only 2 calls came in.


This data was pretty telling. Despite their best efforts, the warm line wasn’t working. The data was so stark, that once it was shared with the board, the decision was made to invest those staff resources elsewhere. 


3. Take a Hard Look in the Mirror


It is time to wrestle with some hard questions. Match your data on effectiveness with the cost of your program, including direct financial costs, staff time, and volunteer time.  Does the program seem worth the investment? Is it meeting its goals or could that time and money be better used elsewhere?


These are the toughest conversations to have, even with yourself. Once again, do your best to be as objective as possible. Try to convince yourself of both sides to understand the pros and cons of stopping a program.


What does your gut tell you? What do your trusted advisors say?


You should have an answer.


Example: A family stability organization that offered legal aid, job assistance, and after school support for kids so parents could utilize their services was also running a small summer camp for kids. All of these efforts seemed tied together to help promote family stability and prevent families from becoming unhoused. Yet, the organization was spending a lot of time and money in a lot of directions, and funding was running short. After reviewing their mission and evaluating their programs, the summer camp stood out. A summer camp is, unsurprisingly, very expensive to run even for a small number of kids. Staff, training, supplies, and space add up fast, not to mention the risk and liability for an organization caring for kids all day. The families affiliated with the program loved the summer camp. But, after putting all of the data together, the organization made the hard decision to stop the summer camp.


4. Consider Protected Interests


“Protected interests” is a euphemism for those programs and services that everyone knows is "untouchable" This could be for many reasons, but (1) tradition and (2) donors are often part of it. 


Tradition

People feel they cannot cancel programs or services that have a long history or are deeply intertwined into the organization or community. It can be really challenging to feel like you are not honoring the past.  For example, it's hard to cancel a conference after 9 years of success.


Donors

This rationale is usually straightforward: your biggest donor loves a certain program. They have invested funds into the program, and it’s their favorite. This one is particularly tricky.


I originally listed “protected interests” as the second step after mission and vision - because we might as well set aside the things we know we cannot change. Right? Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we must ask hard questions about all of our programs and services - maybe not directly to donors but at least internally.


  • Is the protected program aligned with our mission and vision today?

  • Does the protected program work?

  • Do we have data to back it up?

  • Is it worth the investment?


Realistically, nonprofits must have very compelling reasons to sunset these types of programs; but it can happen if it is necessary and your organization can come out ahead in the end. 


Example:

An organization had a few large donors to their programs. One of their largest donors was passionate about youth mentorship programs that connect opportunity youth with community leaders for one-on-one mentoring. This donor was so passionate, they donated more than a million dollars into the program and was involved in the day-to-day operations.


On paper, this all should have worked. We all dream of having passionate, engaged donors. Yet, this program did not work. Several staff members did seem to understand or be able to execute the vision of the donor and moved on. It was challenging to recruit youth to participate in the program. The program repeatedly stalled and had very little success despite the organization’s and the donor’s best interests.


Then came the hard part.


The donor wanted the program to succeed, but they became understandably frustrated. Over time, it became clear to the organization that this program was not the right fit for their community. They had several hard conversations internally and with the donor over the course of a year. They included extensive data about program success, costs, and community needs.


The organization was able to make the case that they could better meet the community's needs by creating an open drop-in space, with access to basic needs, computers for homework, and a place to just chill. The donor agreed. The mentoring program was paused - to be revisited if and when youth expressed an interest. The teen space opened with strong support and initial success.


The conversations were not easy but it can be done, especially if you work hard to have a clear mission, vision, and alignment of your data with the needs of your community. 



Decision Time


Where has the process led you? Is the program mission aligned, performing well, and worth the expense? Is the service way outside your mission, performing poorly, and way too expensive? Is your major donor happy to change after years of supporting a specific program?


You'll rarely get such an easy answer from this process. But, at least you will have all of the data you need to honestly evaluate whether a program is still right for your organization, or if it's best to let it go.




Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.


 countbubble is case management simplified. We can help your nonprofit master data collection and reporting. Email us contact@countbubble.com  or sign up for email updates on blog posts, useful content for nonprofits, and product updates.


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