Community-Driven Institute


Starting a New Program:
Is it Really Feasible and How Will We Fund It and Where Do We Go from Here?

by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc.2000, 2007

The 3 Questions of Feasibility Study

What do we want this program to accomplish for our community?

Is this project really needed?

If it is needed, what will it take internally to make this program a reality?

"I've got a great idea for a new program! Lets form a NonProfit, and then we can get grants!"

Sound familiar? Starting a new program is exciting. But without doing your homework first, your program is much more likely to fail.

We don't like to do the homework. We think it's more exciting to just jump in and get to work. That's why this article will be helpful for you. Because done correctly, performing a feasibility study IS exciting.

Yes, exciting.

What Exactly is a Feasibility Study?
A feasibility study will provide you with a map of pitfalls and opportunities likely to be encountered in creating your new program. Feasibility study is the ounce of prevention that is worth far more than the pound of cure.

Feasibility study lets you see potential problems before they hit you between the eyes (the point when most of us first notice problems!)

That Doesn't Sound Like Fun and Excitement! You Promised Excitement!
The excitement comes from talking to dozens of knowledgeable people, from your congressman to high school kids. Finding new ways of thinking about your program. Considering all sides of the subject, so you don't have to learn from your mistakes. Gathering information that will be critical when it comes time to look for funding. Talking to folks who are likely to become supporters of your efforts.

Looking at Feasibility Study in this light, it's hard to understand why someone would choose NOT to do it!

Getting Started:
The root of feasibility study is asking questions. There are three sets of questions that will help you determine if the project makes sense:

What do we want this program to accomplish for our community?
Is this project really needed?

If it is needed, what will it take internally to make this program a reality?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether the project will do what you want it to do, and it will tell you how.

Who to Ask:
We have written entire books about 'who to ask' and how to engage those individuals. The best advice as you start out is to list everyone you can think of, whose advice might be helpful in answering the questions below. Don't worry about whether you know those individuals or not - just list who you would love to get advice from. Potential clients? Potential supporters? Potential partners? People who might refer clients? People who are already in the trenches?

Then next to all those names, note the ones you already know. For the ones you do NOT know, your job is twofold. First, list people who may know them, who can provide an introduction. Second, make sure every time you meet with someone, you ask if they know anyone who knows the individuals you want to get to know.

Remember, because this is fact-finding and not asking for money, people will be far more willing to connect you to people they know.

And in the end, there is always the direct approach - pick up the phone and call those people directly, with no introduction. Again, because you do not want money (and you may need to be very clear about that - we are all so used to being hit on for money!), you have a far better chance of their agreeing to share their wisdom!

For additional information on how to engage these individuals and where to find them, see the links at the bottom of this article.

Question #1:
What will this program accomplish?

Most people think of "feasible" as a combination of

a) Is there a need for it?


b) What will it cost? / Can we afford to do it?

Those business-oriented questions are indeed important. But they don't get at the heart of why NonProfits create new programs - to create change.

And so, the first question for creating a new program must be:

What change do we want this program to accomplish for our community?

Whether you are starting a whole new organization or creating a new program for an existing organization, focus on your vision for improving your community.

Other questions to spark your thinking:

What do we want the end result of this program to be?

Why is this program important?

These will be your first questions, and they will also be your last. Because at the end of all the research and interviews, you will be able to look back at these questions and answer:

Will the program accomplish what we wanted it to accomplish?

Question #2:
Is The Project Needed?

The second set of questions helps decide if the program is needed:

  • Is there substantial demand for this program?
  • Will this program in any way duplicate or otherwise compete for funds and/or clients with programs doing similar work in the community?
  • Are the obstacles to developing this program insurmountable?
  • Does the development of this program provide synergy or other benefit for our own programs and/or other programs in the community?

The Exciting Part: Finding the Answers to Those Questions
There is no magical way to find the answers to these questions. The power (and the fun) come in the asking - in talking to as many people as possible, from as many different perspectives as possible

Philanthropists and other NonProfits. City Council offices and program recipients. Volunteers. United Way. Ask the CEO, but also ask the janitor. Imagine how strong your program will be when its genesis is the input of all these knowledgeable and involved souls!

You will find that most people are anxious to help you. People like to be thought of as experts, and they like to share their opinions and thoughts. You will be asking folks to do what they enjoy doing. Treat them to breakfast, and ask away!

Demand and Competition:
Is there unmet demand for this program? Or is there already something like this around your community?

To learn what's going on in your community, talk to folks from as many walks of life as possible. Survey potential recipients of the service. Talk with local government officials, with Information and Referral services, or other organizations that are often the first stop in a person's search for help. Talk with funders - foundations, individual philanthropists, United Way representatives, etc.

What are their biggest gripes about existing programs? What do they think of your idea? What are their suggestions? What approaches are they thinking of that you haven't considered?

Obstacles are those things that could stand in the way of a successful program, and that MUST be overcome for the program to accomplish its goals.

What may stand in your way? And how can you overcome those obstacles?

Money and staff are always the first items on the obstacles hit-parade, so you might as well put them on there right now.

Then think of internal obstacles: Limited physical space for a new program? Limited past board support for this type of effort? Etc.

Add external obstacles: Is the economy so healthy that the public has forgotten the poor? Does your community have a disdain for public art? What external obstacles will threaten your program?

Ask your contacts about these potential obstacles. Have them add others to the list. And then, item by item, with the help of the folks you are interviewing, determine if and how those obstacles can be overcome.

Synergy can be internally or externally focused as well. The new program may be a catalyst for other changes within your organization, or it could be a catalyst for changes in the community, bringing a number of agencies together to do something that hasn't been done before. Again, talking to lots of different folks is the key.
If the creation of this program will make the whole bigger than the current sum of parts, then that will be a big plus in determining its feasibility.

Wrapping It All Up
The benefits from this questioning come from the actual answers you receive, as well as the simple process of asking and talking to people.

First, you will gain invaluable information, from perspectives that might never have occurred to you. It is exhilarating to have all this advice, from experts in so many fields, free for the asking.

Equally as important, though, is that you will be out in the community, making the project known, gaining support. Follow up these visits with a personal note of thanks for their time, and promise to keep them posted on your progress. Then keep your word and do keep them informed.

Question #3:
"What Will it Take to Run The Program?"

Just because a project is needed doesn't make it practical.

The following set of questions will eventually become your program/business plan, leading right up to the creation of a program budget. They describe the practical side of your plan.

Chances are you know many of the answers to these questions and won't need a great deal of outside input. However, if you are in doubt, don't guess - ask. The more accurate your information, the more accurate your eventual cost projections will be.

The following seven functions are the basis of any NonProfit program, regardless of the type of program. The first 2 items, Product and Operations, will define the program and lay the groundwork for all the other functions.

For the purpose of this example, lets use the following program:

The Creation of a Counseling Program

As specifically as possible, define the program. If the program is short-term counseling for at-risk teens, what will be the focus of the counseling? How specifically can you define your clients? What types of problems will the program focus on? Etc.

As succinctly as possible, define how the program will function. From where are you anticipating the teens will be referred? What will be the process once they arrive? How many sessions will they get? How long will a session be? What will the intake process be? Etc.

Direct Service Personnel:
From your definition of the program and its functional operations, what types of positions and how many direct service (non-administrative) staff hours do you anticipate the program will require?

What types of administrative support will the program require? Will the program require its own full-time receptionist or can that position be shared? What kinds of paperwork will be required? How much planning time will be required? Administration is the area that is most frequently overlooked and is guaranteed to eat up a larger-than-expected chunk of staff time. Be as specific as you can in planning for this function.

Equipment and Facilities:
Estimate all the equipment and facilities needs for starting AND maintaining the program. This will include physical space as well as everything from desks and chairs to computers. Can some of this function be provided in-kind or collaboratively?

Community Engagement:
Do you have a plan for engaging community members in what you want to accomplish? This will include engaging individuals in referring your service, to bring in clients - which may include engaging schools or the courts or whomever. It will include engaging individuals who may be able to provide things you need - resources such as space or volunteers or cash resources or advice about how to do the work you are doing (or answers to all the questions in this article!). How will you ensure the community is deeply engaged in your work?

A Fluid Process:
You can see that this process isn't cast in stone. The answer to one question may change the answers to a whole set of previous questions.

Looking into the equipment needs of your program may bring up numerous obstacles that hadn't been considered. After reviewing those new obstacles with some of your contacts, you may find that the project doesn't make as much sense as it did before you had all the facts.

Or you may find, while researching the personnel needs of your program, that there are 2 similar programs in your community, that no one in your highly knowledgeable group of advisors even knew about, offering the opportunity for collaboration.

Be prepared to adjust and tweak as you continue to learn.

Will the Program Accomplish What We Wanted It To Accomplish?
We circle back to the question that matters most: Will this program help us make our vision for our community's future into a reality?

Once the planning group is satisfied that the whole package makes sense - that there is a definable need for the program; that obstacles are all addressed with a plan for overcoming them; that funding is possible; that there is no potential duplication of effort; etc. - then you will be able to answer that big picture question: "Will this program accomplish what we wanted it to accomplish?

What Comes Next?
Calendaring, assigning and budgeting. Who will do what, when? How much will it cost and how quickly can we realistically budget it in?

Then start your engines, and you're off! You will be on the road to providing that new service, reaching towards the long-term possibilities you had envisioned for your community.

And you will have gained support and had a good deal of fun along the way!


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