Understanding the Landscape: The Role of Research in Nonprofit Program Design

Program Design

Research is not a topic many in the nonprofit arena like to deal with, but looking into background information before starting a nonprofit or a new program can save time and money and help ensure you create the most effective programs to achieve your philanthropic goals.

Here are the key takeaways from this popular class led by Sarah Flesher, founder of Endurance Project Management, a firm specializing in program implementation, evaluation, and development. Sarah concentrates on the practical challenges of implementing nonprofit programs and explains how to deal with and avoid the real-world pitfalls of nonprofit programs.

1. Know what human capital is available to you.

Think about your program and how you would want to implement it. Will you need specialized people to participate in your program like teachers, financial advisors, technology specialists, or healthcare providers? Can you substitute any unspecialized work with volunteers? Understand what expertise you and your staff have and identify where you need additional support and who will fill those roles.

2. Do a landscape analysis of similar programs.

What does this landscape look like? What have other people already tried? Jumping right into a new program without investigating may lead to problems that could have been avoided through research. Start with a broad overview; others may have slightly different missions, but they may serve the same group of people and may have already overcome obstacles that you could also encounter. This research can all be conducted through an in-depth look at an organization’s website.

3. Collect data on a few similar programs.

Through your landscape analysis, you will identify organizations whose mission and programs align with what you are trying to do. These are great organizations to conduct interviews with to get a better understanding of their program. Prepare a few questions to ask: How are participants recruited? How long does a cycle of the program last? Did you develop your own curriculum for this program? If so, what are the key messages you are trying to get across? How many staff does it take to run the program? In implementing this program what has been your biggest challenge and how are you trying to overcome that?

4. Identify key themes from all of the data you have collected.

Using your own research and answers from other program managers, identify commonalities and differences of their programs. This will vary depending on what type of program you are trying to implement. Common themes might be: program cycle, recruitment of participants, program costs etc. From this you will be able to identify what will work best for your organization.

5. Present your research to stakeholders.

Format your data into an easily readable document such as an Excel spreadsheet, table, or outline. This will allow stakeholders to take in all of your work and understand the conclusions you have come to. Having them understand your point of view with solid research makes obtaining funding easier.

As you get started on your research, here are a few sources we suggest for gathering information about other nonprofits:

  • Foundation Directory Online – You can use the “Search Grants” feature to look for organizations in your geographic location who have received grants in your particular subject area. Results will often include a link to the organization’s website where you can learn more about their programs or find contact information.
  • United Way 2-1-1 – This site makes it easy to browse or search for nonprofits providing services by category, location, or demographics.
  • GuideStar – With an account, you can search by location, category, and even income level to find organizations similar to yours. The GuideStar profile includes an overview of the organization’s programs and impact.
Sarah Elizabeth Flesher (Headshot)sm3

Sarah Flesher works with visionaries who have innovative ideas but need support to translate those ideas into executable and sustainable programs. She is a natural problem solver and solution seeker, excels while navigating challenging projects, streamlining processes and procedures all while maximizing underutilized resources. Her background in business-finance, nonprofit management, and philanthropic oversight provides for a unique approach to every task.