5 Steps to De-Risk Program Design

The nonprofit sector does many things well, but soliciting feedback during the process of designing a new service or program is not one of them.  For many nonprofits, we hatch an idea to address the perceived needs of the people our mission serves, then write that into a grant application and hope for funding.  The trouble is, oftentimes we do so based on incomplete information and assumptions, which can be risky. A comprehensive and iterative program design process can help appropriately allocate your resources, make efficient use of staff time and prevent sinking a lot of money into a program before it’s built out.

Test Before You Invest

How do we “de-risk” the process of bringing something new to the nonprofit marketplace?  One suite of ideas gaining traction goes by many different names – rapid innovation, prototyping, design thinking, “pressure testing” – but they all share the same core goal: testing assumptions before you invest a lot of resources into your proposed program or project.

At Mission Capital, we’re increasingly interested in helping the nonprofit sector ensure that programs are fresh, relevant and impactful.  Our Mission Accelerator (link) takes organizations looking to significantly grow a program, product or service through a multi-month process.  At our recent Mission Capital Conference, Mission Capital Board member and Austin Social Entrepreneur Suzi Soza hosted “The Power of Rapid Prototyping,” highlighting how for-profit social enterprises Owlet and Embrace used this process to build out their offerings.

Whatever you call it, this business modeling process really boils down to five important steps.

The Business Modeling Process

Before you launch a new program or service, or even making a major change to an existing offering – consider going through the following process:

1. Write up the program. How would you describe what you are offering in 2-3, easy-to-understand sentences?  Be sure to take the jargon out of it, so that someone unfamiliar with your nonprofit “industry” could understand the general concept, and address what you feel makes it unique. If it takes you more than 3 sentences to describe your program, it’s time to re-think your strategy. (For example, here’s how we describe our Mission Accelerator, “The Mission Accelerator is a five-month program designed to fast-track the growth and impact of nonprofits in Central Texas. Accelerator participants engage in group classes and receive one-on-one guidance from nonprofit consultants and some of Austin’s most successful business leaders and social entrepreneurs. This unique opportunity brings high-value resources to a select group of nonprofits each year.”)

2. Identify core assumptions. What are the key assumptions you are making about the problem your program is designed to solve?  What assumptions are you making about the “solution” you have designed, and why it is uniquely valuable to those experiencing the problem? (e.g. if your nonprofit wants to offer an afterschool enrichment program for children at a neighborhood elementary school, Assumption 1 might be: this afterschool enrichment program fills an unmet need for neighborhood families who don’t have access to onsite child care; Assumption 2: families can pay to price we are charging; Assumption 3: enriching afterschool time will lead to academic achievement gains for participating kids)

3. Identify the riskiest assumption. What’s the biggest assumption you are making?  In other words, if you are wrong about that aspect of the program, would program success clearly be at risk? (e.g. Riskiest Assumption: This afterschool program fills an unmet need for target families; if we build it, they will come)

4. Test that assumption. Look for ways to engage your potential customer, client or user in a way that gives you feedback about that assumption.  How can you get concrete feedback on things like the constraints on choices they make, or what drives their decision-making?  Maybe a focus group of potential participants, maybe phone interviews – this is where the art of pressure-testing or field-testing comes in! (e.g. hold a 1-hour “feedback session” on campus, inviting parents via flyers sent home in English and Spanish)

5. Assess your program in light of what you learned, and revise it where needed. Re-read your 2-3 sentence description and the identify areas that should be re-tested (e.g. feedback session revealed that parents seek child care until 6pm – we must extend our programming until then to meet their need.)

The great thing about rapid prototyping like this is that you can reiterate the process until you get to (or close to) a program design that has the greatest potential for success. If you’d like to learn more about this process or test it out on one of your programs, check out these great articles:


Mission Capital also holds an Innovation Lab that guides nonprofits through this process and others to help create impactful programs.

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