How Nonprofit Finance Leaders Can Support Agile Program Planning

JMT Consulting - Partnering with Vena Software

This post was written by our software partner, Vena Solutions, and originally published on the Vena Solutions blog. Powered by certified planning experts, Vena’s FP&A interface pairs the best parts of Excel and the ability of a full finance-led planning solution so you can streamline your workflows without upending your processes.

Looking to level up program planning at your nonprofit organization? It all starts with embracing these three finance-led processes.

Program planning in the nonprofit sector is a collaborative, cross-functional process, but the onus falls on the finance team to make sure it’s always done well. In an environment where financial transparency is more important than ever, you need to adopt protocols that ensure your resources are spent efficiently. And in order to serve your purpose as a strategic business partner to the organization, you have to respond with agility when funding assumptions change.

If you’re a nonprofit finance leader, all of this probably sounds like a no-brainer to you. However, you might also recognize that many nonprofits aren’t fulfilling their program planning potential.

Consider this for a moment: If budgeting and forecasting are static annual processes—as they are for many nonprofits today—it’s tough to realign program plans if priorities shift unexpectedly. Also, if your program staff aren’t involved in the resource allocation process, you won’t benefit from their input when you need to make weighty decisions.

That’s why agile program planning is so important to master. It’s about looking ahead when you need to and building feasible program plans to lead the organization forward in pursuit of your strategic goals.

We’ll also show you how WWF-Canada – an arm of the largest environmental conservation network in the world – uses these same processes to build smarter, more data-driven program plans. So, if you’re looking to level up the planning cycle at your nonprofit organization, read on to discover how to put these processes into action.

1. Use Custom Reporting Templates for Restricted Versus Unrestricted Fund Balances

Unlike your general operating expenses, program plans draw from restricted funds to appease your donors and grantors. But managing these allocations quickly requires integrated reporting to break down your fund balances—all the way down to the individual grant or donation level.

Without a consolidated view of the funds available for each program, you’d have to dig through mountains of donation data to determine where dollars can (and should) be spent. On the other hand, if you don’t have a regular status report regarding your plans for unrestricted funds, you might miss out on opportunities to supplement your program budgets from that pool.

That definitely isn’t agile, which is why you need custom reporting templates for restricted and unrestricted funding sources. With a clearly defined breakdown of available funds at your fingertips, you can easily map your program plans back to specific donations or grants. Not only will this help you better inform your fundraising priorities and make the most of your resources, but you’ll also be able to track where your money is going in real time—which is something your board, donors and the government will always keep a close eye on.

Clement Marlin, a Senior Financial Specialist with WWF-Canada, used to spend hours consolidating fund balances for his program coordinators each month. But with Vena, he’s been able to create reporting templates that pull fund data directly from his GL. Now coordinators have the ability to check their balances on demand so Clement can spend his time on more valuable strategic planning initiatives.

To learn more about WWF-Canada’s efficiency gains with Vena, watch Clement’s free, CPE-accredited talk, “Transforming Nonprofit Program Planning,” on

2. Implement Rolling Forecasts To Maintain a Balanced Budget

If programs are the largest variable expense items in your overall budget, you need to look ahead regularly and pivot quickly when assumptions change. That’s where rolling forecasts—i.e. frequent reforecasting based on up-to-date actuals—come in handy.

With a consistent forecasting cadence in place—which could be monthly, weekly or even daily in some cases—you can easily pulse check your program plans and ensure you’re on track to balance. If you get an unexpected donation, or if your programs end up costing more than originally expected, you’ll always be able to gauge how it affects your bottom-line outlook. That way, instead of scrambling to react to emerging trends, you’ll have the insight you need to adjust course ahead of time. And if you use the right tools, agility will feel effortless—your actuals and future funding estimates will update with the click of a button.

At WWF-Canada, Clement’s rolling forecast process is one of his key achievements with Vena. As the organization navigated a recent transition to virtual fundraising events, rolling forecasts gave Clement the ability to:

  • Quickly revise his quarterly budget to account for lower operating expenses
  • Provide some much-needed clarity regarding the feasibility of future conservation programs
  • Challenge his new forecasts by performing scenario analysis with real-time numbers

Check out this blog post to learn more about how rolling forecasts can help you respond to change and keep your budget on track.

3. Give Program Staff Visibility and Influence Over Resource Allocations

As a nonprofit finance leader, you have the power to rally your program staff and to stoke their passion for the cause you support. All you have to do is involve them in the strategic planning process, regardless of where they stand in your organization’s overall hierarchy.

You won’t want certain people to see everything—such as specific salary expenses, for example—but you can structure your program planning in a way that keeps everyone engaged. It starts with being transparent about the funding allocations for each program area, then fielding constructive feedback as you map out the budget with program staff. Here’s how to do it:

  • Distribute detailed allocations reports with role-based security permissions, so the numbers they need to see are the only ones that are visible
  • Build functional workflows that allow managers to approve/reject program budgets, but only after the entire team has had an opportunity to contribute
  • Incorporate audit trails, commentary and drill-down functionality into your program templates to ensure complete transparency through every stage of the planning process

At WWF-Canada, Clement and the finance team have a “reciprocal relationship” with program staff. He gives leaders the funding information they need, and they always keep him updated about what’s happening in the field. With Vena’s centralized database powering the entire planning process, neither Clement nor the program leaders need to worry about data integrity. Everyone is always working from the same set of financials, making it easy to plan programs faster and more collaboratively as a team.

Read the full story for more details about WWF-Canada’s growth journey with Vena.

Every nonprofit will take a different approach to program planning, but these three finance-led processes should always be part of the equation. If you build custom templates, leverage rolling forecasts and engage all of your program staff through every step of the planning process, you’ll always be well positioned to plan confidently for your organization’s future.

Discover how Vena can help your nonprofit finance team improve performance.

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