I think non-profits are formed from one of two thoughts. You might say “we need to be doing ‘insert something specific’ for ‘insert specific group.’” An example might be, we need to provide school supplies to low-income students. Or you might see a problem and just generally think “someone should be doing something about that.” An example might be walking in an area and seeing a number of homeless people and thinking “someone should be doing something about homelessness.”

Both that vague “something” and “providing school supplies” are considered non-profit programming. Basically it’s the “something” a non-profit does to solve a problem and often non-profits are built around these programs. I hinted at this in my post on strategic planning. After you set your goals and objectives, you need to come up with action plans, which usually involve some sort of programming.

Programs are Not Activities

The loose definition above makes it sound like programs can be just about anything. Serving pizza to an after-school program or providing music to a nursing home are great and admirable activities, but that’s just it, they’re only activities. The difference between an activity and a program is that programs are structured services designed to directly address a specific problem in the community using activities that will create change for those problems. Using the examples above, a program might be providing healthy snacks as part of an after-school tutoring program connecting older volunteers with elementary school students to ensure they get proper nutrition during the program. Or working with a music therapy graduate program to provide music therapy at a low-income nursing home.

Turning an Activity Into a Program

First, do your homework. I’ve talked about this in a previous post, but you should know what other non-profits with similar missions are doing. You might think that providing school supplies to low-income students might be the best way of helping that population, but if you don’t do your homework, you will miss that there’s an excellent program already providing that service. Ask the people you are serving what they need or ask someone with direct knowledge of the problem. For example, reach out to teachers and parents and you might find out that students really need after-school homework help.

As I discussed in a previous post, strategy is everything. When you develop programming you’ll want to have goals, objectives, and strategies – or what I like to think of as the “why and how.” If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what needs doing – aka the “why.” “The how” is those activities or strategies that will achieve your goals. In our example, you will want to come up with ideas on who can provide after-school homework help, what areas students need the most help in, where to provide the service, and how to recruit volunteers and participants. You might consider enlisting a retired teacher to lead a study group or work with a local university to provide one-on-one tutoring from college students.


When planning your programming, consider the other “W’s” – who, when, and where. These questions are essential to making sure your program is delivered to the right people at the right place and time. You can do this by something we actually discussed above – involving stakeholders. In our example, I encouraged you to speak with teachers and parents – these are stakeholders who know about the students and want them to succeed. A good first step is to make a list of stakeholders and set up meetings or phone calls to learn more about the issues.

Logistics can be a nightmare for folks who are not used to organizing events and activities. I highly recommend thinking about your skill set and determining whether you have this skill or if you’re willing to learn. Many good, necessary programs fall apart because the “organizer” did not do the necessary tasks to make sure the program runs smoothly. If this is not your skill set, find a friend or volunteer to help!

These are just the basics on starting up your own non-profit programming. Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn from others!

Author: Carolyn

Carolyn Noe is the owner of Noe Ideas as well as the Founder & Executive Director of Super Heroines, Etc. It is her personal mission to help dreamers and do-gooders turn their fantastic ideas into implementable, goal-oriented non-profits and businesses.