Restore Strategies | Program Design Essentials
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Program Design Essentials

1) Articulate WHY Design Matters

Your program will produce exactly the kinds of results it was built to achieve – not necessarily those it was intended to achieve.

The idea of thoughtfully designing the programs your nonprofit undertakes may seem intuitive. Of course you want to help as many people as you can! However, it is easier than one might think for new initiatives to be implemented without serious research or community input. It is even easier for existing programs to simply continue in perpetuity without any kind of reexamination. “Program inertia” is a powerful force – taking the time to do it right on the front end can save you and your team a lot of frustration down the road. Approaching program design holistically is advantageous for a variety of reasons:

  • Financial Support and Transparency: Governments, foundations, and other donors want to see that you are serious about solving the problems you identified and are taking the steps necessary to collect data, analyze the results, and make the adjustments necessary to make sure you are moving the needle.
  • Marketing: Program design and evaluation allows you to better tell your story to donors, volunteers, and the public at large. Putting the right policies and structures into place allow you to collect information, feedback, and stories from clients from the beginning – these can become part of your marketing strategy as well as your quality assurance strategy.
  • Program Efficiency and Efficacy: Building failsafes, reporting requirements, and feedback channels into your program from the beginning can help you identify and address deficiencies (or simply inefficiencies) in your approach. Without these components, a program that doesn’t seem to be doing any harm on the surface may subtly be harming or even dehumanizing those that you initially sought to serve.


These are great reasons to make sure the right first steps are taken when considering any new initiative. However, many organizations do not or are unable to reevaluate programs that have operated for a long period of time or rethink their initial designs. This could be for a variety of reasons:


  • They simply don’t care. If funds are coming in and there is no pressure from funders or the public to be more accountable, then the appetite to shake up the status quo may just not exist.
  • They lack the resources to do it well. Consequently, the metrics collected may be simple and or ineffective at giving nonprofit leaders a real pulse on the health and vitality of the program and its participants.
  • They are scared to learn how the program is actually performing. Even if the nonprofit has good intentions, it may be afraid that longstanding programs may not be as effective at addressing root problems as donors and the public believe. Consequently, program directors may actively avoid transparency or robust program redesign/evaluation.


These are real concerns and shouldn’t be downplayed. Balancing the needs and wishes of everyone involved in the nonprofit space is challenging – the interests and motivations are often at odds with one another and nonprofit leaders must have guidelines in place to prioritize them. Nonprofits must often satisfy (or at least placate):

  • Donors (including foundations, major philanthropists, and small givers)
  • Governments (in the capacity of funders and as regulators)
  • Beneficiaries
  • Influential community leaders
  • Volunteers

What does it look like to bring all of these voices to the table and acknowledge their input? How does an organization go about identifying and prioritizing the desires of the various stakeholders in the program environment? The resources below will help shed some light on collecting community input and assessing the stakeholder environment.

Developing a Plan for Assessing Local Needs and Resources
Raising the Bar on Nonprofit Impact Assessment

2) Identify Key Pieces of Your Design

A 2011 literature review by the United Way of Calgary succinctly describes the characteristics of a thoughtful and well-constructed initiative:

“A good program design should incorporate sound research knowledge and best practices to determine the best fit of elements required for a program to be effective. Program design involves translating the program objectives, with a thorough understanding of the social issue and needs of the target population, into new or improved services. The goal of program design is to establish those services which will have the best possible chance of achieving the program’s objectives and create measurable positive change for participants.”

One of the most popular ways to think through and map these concepts is through a logic model. This tool helps nonprofit leaders identify the “logical” chain of events that must take place for the outcomes they want to materialize in the future. Logic models force the designer to identify and justify assumptions they’ve made about the program’s environment as well as the clients’ actions and attitudes. These conceptual maps are typically comprised of six parts (described below by ____):

  • Resources: human and financial resources as well s other inputs required to support the program
  • Activities: the essential action steps necessary to produce program outputs
  • Outputs: the products, goods, and services provided to the program’s direct customers or program participants
  • Outcomes: changes or benefits to people, organizations, or other program targets that are expected to result from their being exposed to activities and outputs
    • Short-Term Outcomes: the social, economic, or spiritual change most closely associated with the outputs that you produced through your activities
    • Intermediate Outcomes: the changes that continue to take place as the beneficiaries move toward the ultimate outcomes you and your team desire
    • Long-Term Outcomes: the ultimate changes you hope will take place (e.g., end of poverty, elimination of a disease, etc.)


While logic models should be just the first step in your program design process, it is critical to put your thoughts to paper and ask the difficult questions. It may be hard now, but the sooner those cracks in the foundation are addressed, the more effectively you can mitigate greater damage to your organization or the people you serve in the future! Learn more about logic models and program design with the resources below.

Program Design Logic Models
Program Design_ A Practical Guide
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