Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

It was the thirteenth day in a row the temperature was over one hundred degrees. The air was so heavy and wet it was like we were wearing it. I was riding with Joe Hudson in his rusted Chevrolet. On its last legs, it had no A/C or shock absorbers. It lurched and clanked down the streets of underprivileged neighborhoods, followed by a blue fog. The address we were looking for was an old bungalow from the 1920s. As we came up on it, surrounded by weeds, we saw the awnings were broken and the window screens ripped to shreds. From a hundred feet away we smelled the animal urine and excrement. Inside with our client, we choked and retched, tears streaming, until we could accomplish our mission, get out, and report the situation to the authorities. The effect on me was more long-lasting. As I had already done with the military, factory work, the bar business, and academia, I abandoned social work as a career path and found my way to research.

I was working for the type of organization that may be called not-for-profits, outreach programs, social service agencies, or charities. Existing to provide assistance and resources to underserved groups, they are the ones with .org web addresses. The large ones call themselves Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Most of us know some of the big ones: Red Cross, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, United Way, and others. Most are concerned with issues involving human rights, health, education, and the environment. The small ones usually call themselves nonprofits. They have small staffs and work at the city, county, or neighborhood levels and provide a particular service to a certain group in a defined area. We hear little about them.

Combined, they’re a very big industry:
  • According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, nearly two million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S.
  • Family, corporate, and community foundations give over $60 billion a year in grants to registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits. 
  • Year after year, millions of U.S. adults volunteer billions of hours to charitable organizations.
Matchmaking on search terms.

Last year I volunteered with an organization (itself a nonprofit) that connects nonprofits with business professionals like me who share their expertise pro bono. Latin for “the public good,” pro bono has come to mean provided without a fee to clients of humble means. The organization’s mission is to provide nonprofits with access to professional resources in such areas as business planning, IT, HR, accounting, marketing, and others. When one of their nonprofit clients says they are looking for a feasibility study, they are sent to me, a career researcher. We have telephone conversations and I follow up with a few pages of pro bono advice and recommendations.

Each of the situations plays out much the same.

Executives of small nonprofits typically have low regard for businesspeople whose goal is to turn a profit. Leaders like to talk about their charitable missions and find it distasteful to discuss where the money comes from. It is hard for them to accept that the only reason they are asking for a feasibility study is because they want money.

When nonprofits apply for grant money, they are required to submit the findings of a feasibility study.

I remind executives that they are competing with other agencies for program dollars. Agencies that present sound business plans and submit credible feasibility studies win more financial grants than those with poorly constructed appeals for handouts. 

A feasibility study is only one part of a larger effort.

Think about the bigger picture. Support and endorsements beget funding that in turn increase support and endorsements, and so on. Your real objective is not a feasibility study, but to write a grant proposal that results in your program being funded. The best way to gain support, endorsements, and funding is to show two things:

  • Compelling evidence of the need for your proposed service, and
  • How your nonprofit will deliver on your promises.
Ask and answer some key questions and you have the beginnings of a business proposal you can use to gain support, endorsements, and funding.
  1. What is your agency’s program and who will it serve? Here you present facts and figures, both in overview and detail:
    • A thorough description of your service and why it is needed.
    • A profile of the people you will be serving, including demographics.
    • A detailed definition of the catchment area from which your program expects to attract people to use its services. 
    • The socioeconomic composition of your defined geo-political boundaries.
    • Be sure to include U.S. Census data.
  1. Why is your agency’s program the best one to fill a community need? Here you describe:
    • What your program looks like.
    • How it compares with other programs in other cities.
    • An overview of your agency’s past performance history.
    • Your agency’s mission.
    • The credentials of your agency’s staff.
    • A list of your supporters and advocates. 

Field of Dreams. 

Snap out of it! Only in the movies do they come just because you built it. Most small social service agencies do no research of any kind, and so know little or nothing about it. They think a feasibility study is a document that says the service they provide is an important and much-needed one. After all, their friends and family have already agreed it is a great idea, so it must be. But they’ve missed the point of an honest-to-goodness feasibility study. In the nonprofit grant world, the point is to determine if an idea is worthy of funding. The study is a detailed examination of who will be served, how, when, where, and why – with an emphasis on identifying likely and potential problems. Just like in the business and financial worlds that invented the feasibility study.

Experts agree even a bare-bones feasibility study involving an underserved minority group living within a limited catchment area would cost tens of thousands of dollars. One that provided real value would cost several times that. It would involve many people and take weeks to plan, execute, analyze, and draw conclusions.

What is the pent-up demand for your agency’s program?

The reason grant providers ask for feasibility studies is they want an assessment of the practicality of a proposed project, plan, or service. It must be an honest and factual assessment of latent demand and the likelihood of success. Your study cannot have “validation” as a goal. It must be designed and executed to objectively uncover the strengths and weaknesses of your plan. It must clearly identify the barriers you are likely to encounter so you can demonstrate your understanding of the problems and how you plan to address and overcome them. Nonprofits that identify problems and show plans win grants.

You have three options for your feasibility study. 
  1. Pay a research supplier to do a professional job. I do not do research, nor do I sell research, so I am not angling to get paid. After many years of doing research, I now specialize in helping people plan their research and think through the rough spots. 
  2. Get someone to do your study for nothing. This isn’t me, either. Few professionals are likely to donate weeks of their time and tens of thousands of dollars to someone who doesn’t have a sound business plan. Those who will do a study for nothing will likely produce a clumsy piece of work of little value that will be rejected by grant providers. 
  3. Ask the Sociology department of a local university for a reciprocal arrangement. Ask them to do your feasibility study for you in exchange for the right to use the project and the data as a practical learning platform for their graduate students. The university contributes their talents to the community and you get a quality product that is taken seriously by granting institutions.
Before choosing one of those alternatives, ask your board members and your executive committee to read these three articles. 
  • Ask For It By Name. This article describes the pitfalls that occur when executives begin by asking for a particular study or procedure instead of defining what their goals really are.
  • You Say Potato. This one talks about the disconnect between what study sponsors are looking for and what they actually need. It speaks to why we always need to begin with agreed-upon definitions of terms that we know to be defined very differently by all involved.
  • Coconut Grove. This is the story of a feasibility study that needed to understand the wants and needs of very different groups with very different needs.
And finally, however you choose to proceed, here are a few things to keep in mind.
  • Begin with personal interviews with those in your target group.
  • Listen to their stories and learn what their needs are.
  • Dig deeply enough to uncover the real questions and issues.
  • Ask not only the people you intend to serve, but also teachers, business leaders, politicians, the employed and the unemployed, and so on.
  • It is easy to ask a couple of hundred people to agree your program is a good idea, say they are interested, and claim they would use your service. 
  • Think carefully about what will happen if you present inflated numbers to pad your statistics, and then your clients don’t show up in the numbers you predicted. It is far better, more honest, and more businesslike to collect objective, factual information and make legitimate projections.

To read more articles like this, click here.

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