The program area is the most important facet of a nonprofit organization. It defines the organization and it justifies its existence. Without programs, the nonprofit has no reason to exist. It doesn’t mean that all programs should be the same since nonprofits have different goals. For instance, if the purpose of an organization is to help the homeless, the nonprofit will offer programs in accordance with this goal. Most likely programs would involve temporary housing, food distribution, and job training.
This seems to be a no-brainer, but sometimes it can be a challenge. A program in one place may be fundraising in another organization. For instance, a nonprofit could sell used clothes in a thrift shop. The thrift shop is most likely part of the fundraising area and not the program. However, if the organization provides job training for teens, the thrift shop may be part of a program, especially if it has teens working there, being trained in the shop’s operations and selling techniques.
The first step in identifying programs is to look at the organization’s mission statement. A good, clear mission statement is critical. The clearer and simpler the mission statement, the easier it is to identify major programs–the reasons for the organization to exist. Suppose a nonprofit’s mission statement is to “provide temporary shelter to the homeless.” It is simple and focused. If the organization hosts a car race, then it is not part of a program–most likely it’s fundraising.
On the other hand, an organization with the mission statement “helping people to become self-sufficient” is too general, increasing the chances of confusion about what is a program and what is not. The more focused the mission statement, the easier it is to identify programs versus other operational areas. It makes it easier for the organization to stay on track, as well.
It’s worth noting that the IRS is also interested in this area, as both program information and mission statement are required on the tax form 990. If programs don’t connect well to the mission statement, the organization tax-exempt status may be at risk.
“Mission creep” is an important item that should be reviewed often. This creep usually happens when certain stakeholders want to take the nonprofit in directions not really related to its mission statement. Donors and grantors may also contribute to this creep by offering funds for programs outside the scope of the organization’s mission. It’s management responsibility to identify and avoid mission creep. Or the nonprofit will be all over the place without a real path or strategy. Depending on the case, it may jeopardize its tax exemption as well.
Check out “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide” — Nominated for the McAdam Book Award