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Mission-driven strategies for effective nonprofit program development

Four people looking at sticky notes on a clear wall

Finding the right program funding opportunity can feel like an overwhelming process for new nonprofit grantseekers. But without careful attention, they can inadvertently drift from their mission with program development to meet a funder’s criteria rather than community needs, reducing their grant competitiveness and decreasing their chances of funding success. The most impactful and well-funded nonprofit programs tie closely to an organization’s mission and include comprehensive and forward-thinking strategies in their design.

An effective program development process aligns with a nonprofit’s strategic plan. In this context, the organization’s identified strategic outcomes serve as a compass for programming to help maintain its direction and mission alignment. The resulting program should answer the primary information about who will be served, what services will be provided, the frequency of those activities, the anticipated impacts and benefits, and the financial and human capacity required.

To further strengthen a program’s design, nonprofits can consider incorporating one or more of the following elements into their program model or development process, not only to increase program effectiveness but also to help streamline program fundraising efforts and increase a program’s attractiveness to funders:

Establish a clear need for the program. Demonstrate the need for the program with local statistics or community information. This data can be quantitative or qualitative. Program managers can pull geographic data from sources such as state departmental websites (e.g., health, justice, labor), the United States Census Bureau, and/or research and case studies from universities or evaluation firms. They might also consider facilitating focus groups, interviews, assessments, and surveys to gather feedback from community members or potential program beneficiaries on their own perceived needs and priorities. This information can be used to effectively make a case to funders regarding the problem(s) being resolved or mitigated by your program’s services and connect the value of their dollars to tangible outcomes. 

Incorporate meaningfully engaged partnerships. In a study of how foundations define and approach effectiveness, the Urban Institute surveyed 1,192 grantmakers. Some 69 percent reported they actively encouraged collaboration among grantees; 42 percent of these said they sometimes required partnering as a condition for funding. So, what is the deal with partnerships? Grantmakers acknowledge that strategic partnerships with clearly defined roles improve sustainability and cooperation among agencies, which often leads to greater accountability, capacity building, and better program results.

Establish a sustainability plan. It has been estimated that up to 40 percent of all new social programs do not last long beyond their initial funding. Therefore, nonprofits should consider how they need to develop their organizational capacity, adaptability, program funding, or strategic plans to sustain their programs and continue implementation and adaptation after grant funding ends. A strong sustainability plan incorporates strategies such as diversified funding streams, in-kind resources, high visibility, and evaluation and performance measurement. It also explores and builds on organizational strengths to build continued program support, longevity, and momentum for future success.

These mission-driven strategies can help nonprofit program managers steer their program development process in a way that increases sustainability and impact while addressing the key needs of the community.

Want to learn more?

For more information on how to strengthen your nonprofit’s program development process, sign up for Candid’s “Seven Design Features Your Program Needs to Attract Funding” live webinar on Wednesday, August 20, 2020, at 2:00 p.m. ET. Register for the webinar


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  • Camellia Rahbary Philanthropy says:

    April 11, 2022 8:17 am

    This blog is helpful.

  • Robert Clayman says:

    August 6, 2020 9:23 am

    Thank you for providing invaluable advice and guidance.

    I am leading an initiative to find a home for the Museum of Justice, a not-for-profit charitable organization in Salem, Massachusetts.

    At this stage I am seeking letters of support and interest in collaboration, not money. That will need to follow. Can you comment on the advisability of a start-up seeking financial support given the enormity of needs at the personal, local, state and national levels to address pandemic related issues, evolving and critical social justice issues, unemployment, homelessness, and positive programs for children. All in an environment of inconsistent leadership and hatred that permeates each community's sole.

    I welcome your thoughts and questions.

    Robert Clayman

  • Dennis says:

    August 6, 2020 8:59 am

    Thanks Ashlie for this insightful and we'll thought out advice.

  • Maria says:

    August 6, 2020 7:24 am

    Loved the article.