Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eliminating a program: what not to do

An organization that I am familiar with has been dealing with pretty difficult times financially for the past five years or so. Years of operating at a deficit without cutting back on anything have finally caught up with this organization, and they recently cut a popular, but underfunded program. In difficult times, many organizations have had to make similar decisions, but in this organization's case they did several things wrong. I decided to use them as an example of what not to do when your organization decides to cut a program:

1. Plan ahead and plan wisely
A decision to end a program should be well-planned. It should have taken a lot of thought, and careful preparation- particularly when there are donors in the community that are strong supporters of the program. It also should include discussions with prominent supporters of the program. There should be a transition plan that includes an end of program summary that discusses and highlights what the program has accomplished while it was in existence.
and don't eliminate a program a week before a site visit - while that grant may not be enough to run the program for a year, it may be enough to keep it going for a few months which buys more time to find additional funding.

2. Involve program staff
Make sure to involve program staff in this decision. Many times they can work with you to prevent the elimination of a program by reducing their hours, fundraising, etc. In this organization's case, the staff offered to work reduced hours to keep the program going, and that offer was accepted with a promise that the reduced salary would keep the program going at least a few more months. They had even discussed a transition plan if no new funding was found that would include an end of program summary, but before the two months were up the staff were laid off with zero notice. The staff still offered to write up an end of program summary, but that offer was declined! When ending a program, I think it is extremely important to work with that program's staff to do everything possible to keep it going, but if no funding can be found then the staff are extremely important allies in ensuring that the decision is communicated accurately and the program comes to a smooth end.

3. Communicate the decision effectively
The communication should be one of the most important aspects of the process to eliminate a program. Not only does communication need to go out to your volunteers and staff, but your funders need to be told as well - particularly ones that have given your organization general operating grants or program specific grants for that program. If those grants included the eliminated program, those funders need to know, and should be (if possible) involved in the decision. Also, don't leave the program up on your website so it appears at first glance like your organization still has the program.

4. Don't make it personal
This is about the program - not the staff. Don't make this decision be about the staff and don't burn important bridges. A few other strange things that happened with this organization, were that the laid off staff were removed from all e-mail newsletters and general public communication (even though the laid off staff are current donors) and they were not included on the email that announced the elimination of the program (and recipients of the email were told not to forward it to the laid off staff) - strange huh? While laid off staff are no longer employees, they probably have given a lot of time and money over the years, plus they probably brought your organization many new supporters. Respect them and their commitment.

Hopefully your organization never finds itself in such a position, but if you do, I hope this example helps show you what not to do.