Summer 2003

Going from Free to Fee-Based Services
by Alicia Altmueller and Sean DeWitt

Many organizations that offer free programs are now finding the need to develop fee-based programming. The reasons vary from lack of funding to the maturity of the programs. Here’s how to make this transition:

Mission-based Program Planning

The ultimate goal is to find a sustainable solution that fits within your mission. You need fee-based programs that will run effectively and will not have to be rebuilt and re-implemented. Following the process outlined below will help to ensure the appropriate steps in this transition.

The first step is to assess your current programs. Look at what your facilities already offer, what skills staff members possess, and what makes the most sense to change. Two key elements to remember in this process are your mission and the audience you serve. It is important to define who is affected by the work of your organization and to determine if they can pay you for your services.

Developing fee-based programs that match your organization’s mission will guide your choices about what projects to undertake. It may be important to “reign in” some of the ideas to make sure what is suggested is practical. It is always better to have two successful programs than to have four done poorly.

Buy-in from clients and staff

It is essential to get buy-in from both your clients and staff. The best way to do this is by involving them early in the planning process. This small but important step will not only give all parties a feeling of ownership, but will also give you valuable feedback during the early stages of planning.

What should it cost?

When designing fee-based programs the budget should be driven by the ability of participants to pay and the program cost. You will have to do research to determine the amount that your constituents can realistically pay. It is also beneficial to conduct an analysis of competing services in your area served, to benchmark the current cost of similar services.

Remember that, although you may now be getting money for your services, your program may incur new costs. A possible new direct cost may be promotional materials. An indirect cost may be staff time for processing the fees. With clear planning your organization can anticipate most costs allowing for a realistic budget.

With “revised” programming comes new opportunities for fundraising and partnerships. Your program may be eligible for new funding opportunities. In some states, CTCs may qualify to be an e-partner of the Verizon Foundation. For example, the Fund for the City of New York’s Nonprofit Computer Academy receives an administrative grant and non-profit staff members are allowed to apply for vouchers to cover the cost of their training. In addition, you may be able to partner with another agency to raise funds to offer scholarships or discounted options.


One of the most common pitfalls is to overlook the importance of evaluation. The ability to evaluate the success of your program is the key to the continuation of services. Thorough evaluation of the impact of your programming allows for improved and possibly additional services. The evaluation process then leads your organization back into the mission-based program planning process.

Success in the field

There are numerous fee-based services CTCs have developed that have been successful. The programs range from computer training, summer camps to consulting services. Participants have been youth, schools, senior citizens, entire communities, and non-profits. In each case, the CTC started with what it could maintain and grew the programs as capacity allowed.

Mission-based program planning, involvement of clients and staff, and thorough program evaluation are the cornerstones on which you build successful “free to fee” programs. The true power of this model is introduced when your CTC’s creative ideas and energies are built into this framework.

Alicia Altmueller, Director of Technology Training and Community Outreach for Fund for the City of New York (FCNY) and Sean Dewitt, eBase Coordinator for FCNY, will be leading the "Going From Free To Fee Based Services" conference session with Nancy Cleary and Paula Cymbala from RAFT, LEARN.

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