Making Your Business Model Work: Applying a Break-Even Analysis

Kate Barr

We give lots of business model advice to our clients. It often takes a general form, such as, “improve the financial performance of this program” or “better align that profitable program to your mission.” However, sometimes a more technical analysis is required to really understand how to make a business model work.

Every nonprofit business model has unique business model drivers. These drivers are typically income-generating activities that have a significant impact on an organization’s ability to simultaneously operate at a surplus while achieving its mission. Common examples of business model drivers include: number of clients served, number of projects completed, and amount of grant funding secured. Knowing your business model drivers is essential to managing financial sustainability.

These drivers often consequently correspond to the triggers within scenario budgets.  A scenario planning trigger is a decision point at which an alternative budget scenario is implemented. For example, “if we aren’t at 200 clients served by June 30, we need to switch to our Plan B budget and corresponding expense reductions.” Or, “if contributed income is 20% greater than budget at mid-year, we can consider moving to Plan C and implementing our program growth plan.” Scenario budget triggers are critical, because in a changing environment, action is almost always necessary. (For a scenario planning spreadsheet template, check out the ‘Budgeting and Planning’ section of the Propel Nonprofits’ resource library.)

Setting the appropriate scenario budget triggers requires a good understanding of an organization’s business model drivers. Nonprofit leaders often wonder, “How exactly do I make this budget work?” Or, in other words, “What is the optimal level of service for our organization?”

The rest of this post will explore how to apply a break-even analysis to a nonprofit business model. A break-even analysis tells us at what level of service we’re able to achieve a net financial result of zero, or break-even. We’re going to get technical and do some math. And, it’s going to be fun and helpful in understanding our organization’s financial health!

Let’s first start with some definitions of concepts and terms key to our example:

  • Q – Quantity. This represents the number of clients served.  Depending on the business, it could also represent a unit of production.
  • CI – Contributed Income. These are subsidy dollars, such as grants and individual contributions, that do not vary when service levels change.
  • EI – Earned Income. These dollars vary in direct proportion to the number of clients served.
  • P – Price. Synonymous with variable income, this is the amount of revenue we receive for each client served.
  • FC – Fixed Costs. These expenses do not at all vary with the number of clients served. For example, if we pay $1,000 in office rent, that expense line-item won’t change if we serve 50 or 60 clients.
  • VC – Variable Costs. These are expenses that vary as the number of clients served varies.

Nonprofit budgets often depend on achieving a certain Q. That is to say, at what level of service does our business model work?

A key premise is that a sustainable organization or a sustainable program operates at a financial surplus.

Sustainability = Surplus

Surpluses occur when:

Income > Expenses

Using the above definitions, we’ll think about nonprofit income as either contributed or earned:

Income = CI + EI

Also using the above definitions, we’ll think about expenses as either fixed or variable:

Expenses = Total Fixed Costs + Total Variable Costs

 So, to achieve a surplus, contributions plus earned income must be greater than fixed costs plus variable costs. We’ll call this our Sustainability Equation:


Earned income depends on our variable income and the number of clients served, and our variable expenses depend on the cost per client and the number of clients served:

CI + (P*Q) > TFC + (VC*Q)

Since the purpose of this exercise is to find out what service level makes our budget work, we can do some algebra to solve for the variable Q.

CI + (P*Q) – (VC*Q) > TFC

Q * (P-VC) > TFC – CI

Q > (TFC – CI) / (P-VC)

Now we have a useful equation!  To put the analysis to work, we first need a good understanding (or a good guess!) of the following variables: Total Fixed Expenses, Contributed Income, Price, Variable Costs.

Let’s apply the formula to a simple example to illustrate the analysis.

All Services Nonprofit gets reimbursed $500 for each client served. Current staff has the capacity to serve more clients, so the only variable expenses of adding a client are $100 in transportation expenses.  Most of the budget doesn’t change with the addition of a client; we have fixed expenses of $500,000. The organization expects $300,000 in contributed income next year. How many clients does All Services need to serve to achieve a surplus?

Q > (TFC – CI) / (P-VC)

Q > ($500,000 – $300,000) / ($500 – $100)

Q > $200,000 / $400

Q > 500

The budget breaks even when 500 clients are served. If more than 500 clients are served, and all of the other assumptions are accurate, a surplus will be achieved. This is true because there’s a positive margin per client, so that 500 is a minimum quantity.

For some nonprofits, there is a negative margin per client, meaning that costs per additional client exceed revenue per additional client. In those cases, the quantity that the above analysis yields is a maximum not to be exceeded. Serving too many clients would lead to a budget deficit.

In the short term, we work hard to achieve the service level that makes our business model work. But, what if we can’t achieve this level of service? Let’s think back to our sustainability equation:


As soon as we suspect that our earned income won’t make its budgeted goal, it’s time to consider alternatives such as increasing the price, increasing contributed income, or decreasing expenses. (This highlights the important point that fixed expenses aren’t necessary inflexible expenses. All expenses should be considered flexible to some degree.)

For almost all nonprofits, service level is a key business model driver. It’s important to understand in which direction it’s driving your organization!

Staff Author

Kate Barr

Kate Barr is the former President & CEO of Propel Nonprofits. She retired in 2023 from Propel; she is a finance expert, board member, and mentor to many nonprofit leaders.

Staff Author

Kate Barr

Kate Barr is the former President & CEO of Propel Nonprofits. She retired in 2023 from Propel; she is a finance expert, board member, and mentor to many nonprofit leaders.