While often used similarly, NGO projects and NGO programs are two very different things. We covered this topic in a previous article. Now this article will discuss more why understanding and applying these terms correctly matter. After all, misusing these terms could lead to confusion or, worse, reflect poorly on your professionalism and ethics. This article will discuss these differences in-depth and explain why the details matter.
Project: temporary entity established to deliver specific outputs in line with predefined time, cost and quality constraints.
Program: (also written as programme) portfolio comprised of multiple projects that are managed and coordinated as one unit with the objective of achieving outcomes and benefits for the organization.
Spot the differences? Let’s go through how these details matter in practice.
If a set of related activities forms a project, then a set of related projects form a program. Typically, a project is focused on a particular issue in a given location. A project has specific and achievable objectives to complete during its duration. For example, increasing classroom attendance of 5-12 year-old girls to parity with 5-12 year-old boys in District A within one academic year.
By contrast, a program is more broadly focused around a larger theme or location. A program has very big, long-term goals. For example, an Education Program may have the goal to achieve 100% female primary school attendance in East Africa. Some large organizations may have also have overlapping programs, such as a Kenya Country Program and an East Africa Regional Program.
It is important here to note that while projects are often a subset of programs, programs are not always the larger entity. Some NGOs run very modest programs, while others run multi-year, multi-million dollar projects. Projects and programs are not always a reliable indicator of scope and scale!
Projects will have a set duration, after which they are expected to complete their objectives, wrap-up and report. Successful projects may be extended or replicated, but no project should be designed to last in perpetuity. Project timelines are anywhere from a few months to a few years, but there is an ending date.
Programs do not necessarily have a set end date. They can last as long as the issues still exist and the funding is available. Programs can be set up for a temporary cause, but most commonly programs end when the funding runs dry or the NGO reorganizes its priorities.
Being clear on the timeline is important for donors, but also important to the NGO and beneficiaries. The community you want to work with deserves to know if this will be a temporary project or if you are planning programming for the long-term.
Both project funding and program funding exist, but there are some key differences. Most of the content on this site is devoted to project proposal applications, which is the most common type of grant funding available. Project funding is given for a specific set of activities within a specific time duration. While there is some flexibility is project grant funding, there are also many limitations on re-allocating money and covering core costs.
Program funding, while rarer, has more in common with unrestricted funding than project funding. As long as the funding is used to promote the goals of the program, program funding can be very flexible. These funds can cover program overhead costs, extend programs, cover unexpected costs, pay for partially funded projects, or even launch new projects within the program. Sometimes, program funding can be given even without time constraints, allowing program managers to save it for future use. Still, program funding does require reporting and evaluation. Donors still expect to see the impact of their grant.
Be consistent with project/program usage, especially with donors. Donors have different expectations for projects and programs, particularly in terms of evaluating, expected outcomes, and reporting. Most importantly, do not try to “trick” a donor into thinking a program is a project or vice versa. Donors have reviewed hundreds or even thousands of proposals, and they will notice. Even if they do overlook it and decide to grant funding, the mistake will soon become clear and will reflect poorly on your NGO, hindering future fundraising efforts.
Donors use these words all the time, and understanding the meanings makes applying much easier. Typically, donors will not directly run projects, but they do manage programs. For donor organizations, their programs or portfolios comprise of all the projects they fund within that category. Here are some tips for translating donor-speak:
- When donors say “we only fund projects,” that means they do not fund programs, individuals, or grant unrestricted funding.
- When donors refer to “our projects”, they usually mean the NGO projects they are funding. However, some donors are also implementors, and some NGOs also give grants. In these cases “our projects” may mean the projects they fund, the projects they implement, or both.
- Donor RfPs and CfPs are typically tied to the donor’s programs but ask for projects. For example, if a donor releases an RFP for their “End AIDS Now” program, they are likely not looking for a program that actually completely ends AIDS, but for projects that will contribute to that goal.