How to Sunset an Educational Program

A note for the meeting planner: please order decaf for the next committee meeting. Only 30 minutes in and your highly energetic committee members have already come up with several new online learning program ideas. You love their passion but not the ever-increasing workload for your small department. Since some of your courses have been around forever, you wonder if it might be time to sunset an educational program or two.

“Sunset” is another term for “discontinue” or “retire.” When an organization has limited resources, you can’t afford to invest time and money into educational programs—online courses, certifications, or conferences—that no longer meet the needs of your target audiences.

However, sunsetting an educational program isn’t always easy. Staff, members, or other stakeholders may be emotionally invested in the old program. A sunset review process provides guidance (and cover) for these difficult decisions.

How to tell it’s time to sunset an educational program

The warning signs are obvious:

  • Low attendance
  • Low student retention
  • Poor evaluations

Data is both the red flag and the evidence you’ll need during the sunset review process. Gather attendance and evaluation data that will help you make your argument. Find out how much staff time (in dollars) is spent on marketing and managing the program compared to revenue generated.

Talk to members of the target audience about the program and whether, as it’s currently offered, it solves their problems or meets their needs. Talk to past students too about their experience.

Look at the competition. Is someone doing it better? Or is this program considered a commodity product by the marketplace so the organization providing it at the lowest price is gaining the market share?

Is the program even meeting a market need? Was the idea validated before the program was developed? You have to figure out whether you have a value problem or a marketing problem. One of our previous posts explains what to do when one of your educational programs fails and whether you should move on or revamp it.

sunset an educational program

What to consider before you sunset an educational program

Many associations put all their products, services, programs, and even committees through a sunset review process. A common approach is to review a selection of products every year with each product coming up for review every few years. A committee made up of staff and members manages this sunset review process.

Having a sunset review process in place reduces the influence of natural bias because decisions are based on pre-determined criteria, such as:

Value to members. Your leadership may think highly of the program, but that’s not what matters. What percentage of members use the program? Are you investing a lopsided amount of resources into a program that only benefits a tiny proportion of your membership?

Value to market. Is the program meeting existing or emerging market needs? Our post on program idea validation provides several tactics for assessing market need.

Alignment with organizational strategy, goals, and mission. Has the program taken you away from your organization’s strategic goals and mission?

Revenue vs. expenses (including staff time). Remember, nonprofit is a tax status, not an organizational strategy. Your department needs to make a profit so you can invest in the research and development necessary for future programs. If you made the business decision to forgo profit for this product, make sure it’s still a wise decision.

Two points to consider here:

  • Many legacy programs cost little or nothing to maintain, for example, on-demand webinars.
  • If you sunset a program, you will lose that source of revenue along with any expenses.

Impact. Who’s emotionally invested in this program? How will they react when they learn the program has been discontinued? How will that affect your organization? Understand and prepare for the impact of sunsetting the program.

  • Members: If members were involved in developing or championing the program, they may not like seeing their “baby” being discontinued. Their wounded egos aren’t a sufficient reason to keep a program around, but be prepared to overcome their objections with data-based evidence.
  • Stakeholders: If you’re sunsetting a certification or credentialing program, how will people holding that credential react? What will you do for them?
  • Staff: In some cases, staff will be relieved they no longer have to spend time on a dying program. But, what if the bulk of someone’s job is tied to that program?
  • Partners: Instructors, employers, vendors, policy-makers, or other organizations may be adversely affected by the sunsetting of the program. How will you handle those situations?
  • Brand: Will sunsetting the program have a positive, neutral, or negative impact on your organization’s brand?

sunset an educational program

What to do when discontinuing an educational program

After the committee makes the decision to sunset an educational program, it’s time to implement your “product exit plan.” This plan outlines the steps your association must take to discontinue the program. A critical component of the plan is communication.

Identify risks. While considering the impact of sunsetting the program, you should also identify any risks. Your next step is to develop a contingency plan to mitigate and prepare for those risks.

Develop an internal communication plan. Usually, “internal” communication means communication with staff, but, in this case, “internal” also covers:

  • Volunteer leaders, especially those involved with developing and championing the program
  • Program instructors
  • Program partners

Make sure any member/customer service, sales, and marketing staff also understand why and when the program is being shut down.

Develop an external communication plan for customers and the public. Customers are your main concern, especially if you are sunsetting a certification or accreditation program. Put yourself in their shoes so you can understand how this decision will affect them. Be ready to offer alternatives—our next topic.

Other audiences may also take an interest in your decision. When the Board of Certification/Accreditation discontinued three professional certifications, they prepared for the press as well. Their president and CEO, Claudia Zacharias, CAE, told Associations Now, “What might be an appropriate message for your staff might not be the right message for public audiences, like the media. We developed a comprehensive playbook, so that when we announced the news, people already understood the outcomes.”

Have alternatives ready for customers. If you determined there is a market need for some components of the program you’re retiring, offer them elsewhere either as a stand-alone product or packaged with another product.

Are there other programs you offer that customers might be willing to purchase instead of the sunset product? Or, could you find another organization willing to offer the product and maybe even offer to purchase the rights from you?

Document the sunset process. Volunteer leaders and staff come and go. Years from now, you don’t want your successor to invest time in an idea that doesn’t fly, unless the market demand says otherwise. For every product you sunset, leave behind documentation:

  • Brief description of the product and its history.
  • Reasons for sunsetting the product, including data and market research findings.
  • Impacts—financial and otherwise—of discontinuing the product.

Don’t worry about decaffeinating your committee members. Let the coffee and their innovative ideas flow. Make sure to validate the best ones. If market demand changes, you now have a process in place to sunset underperforming programs and invest in ideas that will deliver more value to members.


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