Program designs that thrive not diebfe1ef62-528a-4cad-8836-92e7317ba8c7

Forgive me for the melodramatic blog title but as a program design enthusiastic I get the frequent opportunity to witness firsthand the good, the bad, and the ugliest of programs across our region!

In fact, I have had the privilege of developing programs that continue to create lasting impact more than a decade after inception and the sorrow of helping burned out nonprofit staff say their last good bye to a time sucking/fund sucking endeavor that never made it off the ground.

Program design is one of my greatest passions because a strategically developed program can provide a solution to a community’s greatest need, a safe haven for people who have no other options, hope where there is none, and jobs for professionals who are passionate about the cause.

Programs are ongoing services/endeavors that are designed to create long-term impact.

Take for example a quality after-school program. The program should not exist simply to help children complete their homework or keep them out of trouble for a day. A strategic program is designed to include resources to ensure that each child develop emotionally, socially, and academically so they are equipped to graduate from high school, and continue on to higher education or a fulfilling career.

In theory this sounds fairly simple, however many great program “ideas” turn into failures because theory and application never meet.

We could host a week long workshop on program design, but for today we hope the following 10 Tips for Programs That Thrive Not Die are helpful:


  1. Never EVER create a program in order to chase after funds – Grant funds are great to start a program, but rarely provide on-going support. Only pursue funds for programs that your organization has thoughtfully considered and that align with your mission statement/vision.


  1. Evaluate your community and available resources BEFORE designing a program – If you have identified a need/problem in your community, then make sure your board/staff does due diligence and evaluates what other organizations/programs are working to meet that need.


  1. Don’t duplicate. Be willing to partner to bridge gaps – Once a need has been identified that falls within the scope of your organization’s mission, you might be tempted to tackle the entire problem. Chances are if the need is truly that great, some other local groups are probably working on the same thing. Get connected and figure out how you can share resources, avoid duplicating services, and partner in such a way that your community can leverage more funding for the project.


  1. Collaboration NOT competition – Program funds are not as readily available as they were ten years ago. Donors want to see how grantees can make the most impact with their dollars and tend to favor proposals that include strong community support and collaboration.


  1. Evaluate successful programs before designing your own – It’s no secret that evidence based programs that incorporate best practices have a higher chance for success. Reach out to experts in the field and ask what programs (similar to the one you wish to create) in the region, state, or nation have a proven track record. Take the time to visit or call program officers to get tips on staffing, equipment, curriculum, capacity, service models, sustainability, etc.


  1. Ensure that your program design is realistic AND specific to reaching your goals – Avoid the temptation to design a complex program with lots of bells and whistles. Ask yourself, what activities/resources/components are CRITICAL to meeting program goals. Enrichment or incentives are great to build into programs as long as they promote the goal and don’t absorb valuable staff/program participant time on a consistent basis.


  1.  Who is doing what? –  Avoid the temptation to say “current staff will assume responsibility for….” as an excuse for hiring new/needed program staff. Make sure your current staff has the time, energy, and expertise to effectively run the program if that is the intention. Otherwise, it is important to consider how you will attract, screen, and hire quality staff and volunteers.


  1. Who is your target population? – Be intentional about who the program is intended to serve. Make sure you adhere to your organization’s non-discrimination clause while keeping in mind that certain projects will inherently be designed for specific populations without being discriminatory. (For example: breast cancer screenings for women, English as a Second Language Programs for non-English speaking individuals, Victims of Violence, Ex-Convicts, etc.)


  1. Establish systems for tracking impact – It’s no secret that programs that can prove they are making a difference are much more sustainable. Program participants, community members, and donors are much more likely to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the program if you can back up your claims with data.


  1. Sharing your impact with the community – Incredible data does absolutely no good if it’s sitting in an Excel file or on your program officer’s desk. Work with your organization’s communication/outreach specialists to develop a strategic plan to share your impact!

Written by: Marie Palacios, Funding for Good Consultant

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