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Adam Shilling shares the three necessary components to developing sustainable community programs within your organization.

For many organizations, turning the calendar from December to January means the start of a new fiscal year. Developing your 2021 budget might be a process through which more uncertainty exists than budgets you have built in the past. Reduced revenues are requiring tough decisions on which programs or services to continue offering and which ones to sunset.

When making this decision, consider these three criteria as a framework for determining which programs and services to keep offering:

Strong community support is critical for long-term success.

This support is mostly found through program participation. Community members will enroll in the programs in which they feel the program’s value is equal to, or greater than the fee being charged to participate. While other barriers (e.g. transportation, scheduling) may serve as barriers to registration, value is typically the primary driver of program registrations.

Another key driver for understanding community support is program partnerships. Organizations and businesses investing in your program is an important indicator that your program aligns with the organizational values and strategic priorities of other businesses and organizations.

When community support for your program is not present, it leads to poor attendance. Do not jump to the conclusion that all programs with low enrollment must be cut. Responding to low enrollment numbers is very much a science. If you would like to attempt boosting enrollment prior to cancelling a program, consider tweaking your program curriculum, hiring new instructors, adjusting pricing, expand your marketing efforts, or change the days and times in which the program is offered.

If you are having trouble finding partners for a program or service, it could mean there is competition in your market offering the same program or service. A good measure for determining if you should continue offering a program or service in the face of competition is to measure whether demand is larger than supply.

Do your competitors have wait lists for their programs? Is the wait time for a service significantly delayed due to few providers? If the answers are yes to either of these questions, go to the beginning of the supply chain to develop a partnership for directing participants to your program. For example, if childcare is competitive in your market, partner with midwives, neonatal departments or pediatricians to develop an ongoing referral system to your program.

A diversified revenue stream is essential for sustainable community programs.

A diversified revenue stream is an essential protective factor against the uncertainty presented by any single revenue source. Individual and corporate donations are a great outlet for the passion your community has for the positive outcomes created by your program. Grant funding is an excellent way to launch a pilot program or expand an existing program to new sites.

The amount of participant program fees you can receive are a demonstration of the necessity of the outcomes individuals receive through your program. To develop an intermingling of these different revenue sources, leverage the positive individual outcomes created through participation in your program by collecting the stories and metrics of your program and sharing them with your funders.

When sustained revenue generation for your program is not present, it leads to financial deficits. There is nothing wrong with offering a program that loses money if that was the original intent. As a non-profit organization it is expected some, if not all, of your programs are designed to lose money.

However, when a program that was designed to break even or turn a small profit comes in at a deficit, that leads to long-term difficulties for sustainable community programs, especially if the program’s outcomes are not deeply impactful.

A perfect tool for understanding the intersections between your program’s profits or losses and the impact the program has is the Program Matrix Map. Use this tool to determine which programs have financial deficits and a low impact, and then develop improvement strategies for these programs or eliminate them from your offerings.

Align community programs with your strategic plans.

Every strategic plan has an organization that designed it, but not every organization has a well-designed strategic plan. And a well-designed strategic plan does not guarantee successful operational execution.

Coordinated implementation of a strategic plan is important because it signals the administrative offices are in-sync with your operational departments. A strategic plan filled with objectives and initiatives that have no semblance of matching your operational activities makes it difficult for senior leadership to rally the necessary community support needed to execute the vision outlined in your strategic plan.

When your programs are not aligned to your strategic plans, it creates a localized program. For regional or state-wide nonprofits, localized programs create a different challenge than they do for independently operated nonprofits. Larger nonprofit organizations typically have multiple locations. The larger the variety in programs and services offered across these sites, the larger the effort needed by all the departments supporting the operations of your nonprofit.

Every unique program offered requires different marketing, fundraising and human resources planning. A two-step process for culling independently operated programs from your portfolio is to first identify the service gaps in your community, which align with your organization’s strategic direction. Next, apply a strategic filter — a tool typically developed in your strategic planning process — to your existing programs. The programs which operate independently and fail your strategic filtering process can be replaced with new programs that fulfill the community’s identified service gaps.

The following visual is a great way to remember the three components necessary for sustainable community programs, and the results of what happens if a component is missing.

Sustainable Community Programs

Adam Shilling

Adam has worked at YMCAs since 2005 and currently serves as the Executive Director of Membership and Program at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. Having worked at an independent Y association, multiple large associations, and Y-USA, Adam brings a well balanced perspective for the many ways that YMCAs work with their communities. He has a passion for using data to inform conversations and partnering with other organizations to address community needs.  

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