Program Reductions Are Mandated—What Can A Nonprofit Do?
The word from management is that the board of directors has decreed there will be program cuts. Regardless of the rationale, be it financial or mission-related, the proposed loss is a source of concern to directors and is a common nonprofit board challenge in the 21st century.
Reactions are varied and I invite you to share your board experience on the topic; here are some deliberations that I have encountered in the past:
Does the program reaffirm the organization’s mission statement?
This statement should provide the overarching values and purposes by which the efficacy of the program can be measured. Every program should be evaluated in terms of its benefits to the clients and its projected revenues and costs. Even with some financial loss, the retention of a program can be justified if it is uniquely qualified to serve users who may not be able to access it elsewhere. A push to identify new funding sources may help prolong the life of a program that is at risk. And some well-established programs may indeed need to be modified and/or partnered with other organizations.
Eliminating a program is a public relations challenge.
The board, staff and management must immediately get and stay “on message” with regard to the reduction process. Stakeholders will lobby vigorously for their favorites; some directors will warn about the “slippery slope” which they claim will hobble the organization. Personnel changes may be required. Management and some key board members should make themselves available to address directors’ concerns and to explain the issues involved in the program decision. The CEO or a qualified director should be appointed to respond to media queries. Foundations and major funders should be alerted, about the reduction, well in advance of the public announcement.
Be prepared for a storm of protests:program reduction is often divisive. Stakeholders get angry; there may be resignations from both board and staff members. Clients, who have a choice, may move to other organizations in protest. However, if the action is well conceived and presented, a positive board/management consensus will promote the organization’s stability and allow opportunities for reasoned growth in the future.
All very sound points. Another consideration is that program reduction doesn’t have to mean service reduction. A board concerned about its population in need will seek to partner with a peer that provides the same service in the area. This way, the organization can still facilitate meeting the need and to some extent reaping the credit, only without spending the money.
Nonprofit leaders today are challenged to think beyond the common or obvious, so as to discover uncommon and innovative ways to make sure those who need help will get it. A value-driven approach to strategic sustainability planning can help organizations avoid having to cut programs for lack of support, as well as equip them to determine how to keep services going, should cuts become necessary for some other reason.
Bernie: I certainly agree.