All nonprofits have goals, or as they are usually stated, missions. Feeding the hungry, providing shelter for victims of domestic violence, supporting veterans, or rescuing animals are all goals, or missions. They are the reason your nonprofit exists.
To support the main mission, action plans, i.e. programs, are developed to reach the main goal.
In addition to solving or alleviating an adverse condition or circumstance, programs also provide funding parameters for supporters. To put it another way, they provide opportunities for people sympathetic to the main goal or mission to collaborate in achieving that goal, without being directly involved in the management and operation of a nonprofit.
Criticism of nonprofit effectiveness is seldom related to mission. Almost without fail, when nonprofits get in trouble with donors or grantors it is related to failure of the program or programs to achieve the mission.
One of the shortcomings of newer nonprofits is failing to communicate how a program advances mission accomplishment.
Interestingly, sometimes that goes back to the mission concept. Vague or overly ambitious missions can make it difficult to design realistic programs that can be developed to deliver the desired results.
Go back and re-read that last sentence, especially this part. " …design realistic programs that can be developed to deliver measurable optimum results." This is often one of the first things I address when working with new clients.
If your program, or programs aren't designed well, they can't possibly develop methods that achieve the best possible outcomes.
To design realistic programs you need to have a realistic program model in relation to your ability to deliver results.
Reality trumps vision
By way of explanation, let's look at the "No Child Left Behind" mission, a product of the George W. Bush presidency resulting in the 2001 legislation of the same name. The goal was to see that every child in the United States receives access to a quality education.
That's a totally realistic mission in terms of the resources available to support it, i.e. the Federal budget.
If that same nationwide mission was to be undertaken by a nonprofit in a town of 400 people in rural America, then the mission is not realistic in terms of scope, and no program could be designed that would achieve it.
Organizations need to take the availability of resources to achieve the mission into account at the time they decide to become a nonprofit. That limiting factor will determine the initial design and development of the programs. Ideally, future planning incorporates an "if-then" component so the program can be expanded as resources become available.
Well-designed programs provide better funding opportunities
Funding, especially from grants, is seldom sustainable from one source, so having a variety of funding opportunities is critical to mission success.
If a program is designed to provide both an immediate benefit and an opportunity for expansion, it can continue to grow as resources become available.
Setting realistic goals that are measurable and achievable allows the nonprofit to show donors that the program does provide tangible benefits at varying levels. When the organization can document positive results, it can attract more funding.
Thus, a neighborhood literacy program for ESL learners can start with a phased in program that first funds community outreach to raise awareness of the mission, then seeks funding for books or electronic readers, then expands to purchase furniture for a rented space, and finally seeks funding for a building to provide a permanent base of operations.
Each of those phases will attract a slightly different donor audience. For instance a corporate donor in the public relations field might fund a PR campaign, a tech company might provide in-kind donations of tablets or e-readers, a furniture company might grant funds to purchase desks and chairs, and finally, major foundations might grant substantial funds to purchase the building.
Instead, far too many newly formed nonprofits start out with trying to fund the building before they can even prove that the community is deriving a benefit from the mission. All that accomplishes is to drive grantors and major supporters away.
As frustrating as it can be, good program planning pays dividends far beyond the time it takes to do it.