Acceptance Criteria Versus Definition of Done

When teaching the Scrum framework, one of the common questions of the nonprofit professionals learning the framework is how are acceptance criteria and definition of done different?


To help explain, let’s think about a favorite dessert treat for many. (Although no judgment if chocolate or brownies are not your favorite!)


If I ask a group of folks in one of our trainings what is their favorite way to be served a brownie, they answer with a wide range of toppings and styles, including:

  • With vanilla ice cream;
  • Warm, with crispy edges and whipped cream;
  • Slightly warm, with a gooey middle and caramel sauce; or 
  • With moose tracks ice cream.


These preferences are acceptance criteria. They help me understand the unique characteristics that make the brownies the best for them. If I were inviting these individuals over for dinner and were serving brownies for dessert, the preferences that I just outlined for how they eat their brownies would help me understand what would create the best brownie-eating experience for them. (In Scrum Teams, the way that a team knows what their community members need is that their Product Owners have asked.)


In training, I bring along a Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix box (our family’s favorite) and show folks the back of the box. There are specific details provided for how to cook the brownies depending on the type, size, and shape of the pan and also the altitude in which I’m baking. Once those details are confirmed, it is clear when the brownies will be done; these are the definition of done. Too little time in the oven, and the egg will still be raw and unsafe for eating. Too long, and they are overdone and burned, with no one wanting to eat them. I can mark the item done on my to-do list in the kitchen when I take them out of the oven at the prescribed time. The definition of done is consistent for baking the brownies, whether I am baking them tomorrow, in two months, or next year. Definitions of done for teams are agreed upon by the team and cover many bodies of work (i.e. – baking brownies all year long regardless of who is going to eat them).


Let’s take the example now away from desserts and think about grant applications. A grant application is done when it is submitted to the grantmaker, whether to the federal government via or via a third-party portal for a philanthropic foundation. Each grant team can agree that once submitted, the grant application is done. They may have unique ways they get to that point, but there is agreement on the definition of done. However, each grantmaker has a unique reason that they are making grant funds available and a unique set of questions and attachments that they will use to help decide which application is funded. These unique characteristics are the acceptance criteria for each grant application since, even if applying for exactly the same organization and the same program, you will have to tailor your application to each and every grantmaker you apply to so that it is as competitive as possible in the process.


What examples of acceptance criteria versus definitions of done do you see in your nonprofit work?


We’d love to hear! Let us know in the comments below, or reach out to share your examples.