Seeing Stars: Identifying High-Impact, High-Profit Programs by Jennifer Murphy, GPC

As grant professionals, we are all too aware that nonprofit organizations have dual bottom lines: mission and money. Nonprofits are not only charged with making significant progress toward meeting a need within the community but also with keeping the lights on in the buildings and payroll flowing to the people that make mission-related service delivery possible. Within a grant strategy, it is important to evaluate how well your organization’s programs impact the community (while advancing your mission) and the degree to which they are fundable.

I find Jeanne Bell and Elizabeth Schaffer’s Dual Bottom-Line Matrix to be a helpful framework for this sort of assessment. The Dual Bottom-Line Matrix helps nonprofit leaders visualize the interaction between mission and money for their organization’s programs and activities. (For a deeper dive into the use of this tool in a broader strategic sense, I highly recommend the matrix mapping article Jeanne Bell wrote with Steve Zimmerman for Nonprofit Quarterly.) On the matrix’s horizontal axis is financial sustainability; on the vertical axis, mission impact.

In the bottom left of the matrix is the stop sign: programs or activities that don’t really advance your organization’s mission and do not bring in money (they may even cost the organization money to sustain). Think poorly attended workshops or fundraising events that cost more to arrange than the donations they bring in. As the imagery suggests…maybe it’s time to throw in the towel on these programs or activities.

In the bottom right is the money bag (sometimes called money tree): activities that have little impact on the organization’s mission but bring in the big bucks. Traditional fundraising typically falls in this category – individual donations, galas, or 5Ks. Throwing the social event of the decade does a lot more for the fiscal bottom line than it does the mission. Money bags provide unrestricted general operating support so paychecks get cut and electricity bills get paid.

heart symbolizes the matrix’s top left quadrant: programs that are closely aligned with the organization’s mission but are not very fundable. These are your passion projects – perhaps controversial, new and untested, or those services that are necessary in your community but lack an appetite for support among funders (e.g., youth development is often much easier to fund than senior services). You will most likely rely on general operating funds to subsidize the heart program.

In the top right corner, we have the crème de la crème of programs – the star. Star programs are highly effective at achieving your mission and are also highly fundable. So, what gives a star program its shine? It all comes down to trends at the community, funder, and mission area levels. Ask yourself the following questions during program development and revision:

  • Community trends: What are the current needs in your community? Where are the gaps in services? How is your program bridging these gaps?
  • Funder trends: What target populations are funders prioritizing? What type of projects are being well funded? Do funders prefer unique approaches for grant proposals (e.g., collaborative grants)?
  • Mission area trends: Are you a true expert at what you do within your community? Are you looking to evidence-based and promising practices to inform your program design? Are you aware of the work done to impact your mission in other communities?

Star programs that receive substantial grant funding meet a vital community need, not just a need within your organization; are well-aligned with funder interests; and are informed by best practices within your service area. That’s not to say that a program that doesn’t tick all three of these boxes is bad – it just may not be a strong candidate for grant funding. Beware adjusting a program to meet funder interests at the risk of drifting away from your mission. Some valuable and necessary programs just won’t get grant money. However, seeing stars within your program offerings will help you create a targeted and strategic grant plan.

GPCI Competency #1: Knowledge of how to research, identify, and match funding resources to meet specific needs; Skill 6: Identify fundable programs and projects for specific organization.

by Jennifer Murphy, MPA