Program design is, arguably, the most important thing your nonprofit will ever do.
Bold statement, right? You all know of my deep and abiding love for great websites and well-written grants. And those things are important. But how well designed your programs are literally determines whether or not you are actually delivering on your mission. They are the foundation for everything else you do.
For anyone new to this term, program design is basically how you set up each of your nonprofit’s programs to run. This includes how they will be staffed, who is responsible for what tasks, what systems you will use to deliver your program, what activities take place, how patrons experience your program, and what types of data you can pull out of the program.
That last bit about pulling data out of your programs is what I really want to talk about because it’s what is most important for grants.
If you want to get grant awards then you absolutely must be able to pull out both quantitative and qualitative data from your programs to prove how effective they are. And the only way to do that is to ensure that each program’s design accounts for and facilitates that data collection, from start to finish.
So how do you best do that? Glad you asked!
Here are some of my best tips for ensuring your programs are designed to win grants:
1. Begin with the end in mind (evaluation)
There are a million ways to approach program design. But if one of your primary goals is to be competitive for grant awards then I would suggest beginning with the end in mind.
To do this, literally take a sheet of paper out. Now write down the title of your program and what goals you want that program to achieve. Now, what are some ways you can prove you’ve achieved those goals? What data, demographics, statistics, or testimonials would help make the case that your organization did what it set out to do?
Once you have those goals and needed proof laid out on your paper, you’re ready to think through what types of data collection tools will help you gather this information. It may be surveys, data pulled from registration forms, test results, or something else entirely. Or you may need more than one type of data tool to collect everything you need.
The important part is to know exactly what you need and how best to get it. Once you know those things, you can design the rest of the program to make collecting and collating that information much easier.
2. Ensure you have the right people on the bus
There’s a fantastic book called Good to Great by Jim Collins that explores why some companies are successful where others aren’t. One of the core takeaways from the book is that you need the right people (staff and volunteers) in the right seats (positions) on the bus (your company or nonprofit) if you want your organization to be a success.
If you have have the wrong people, you won’t achieve your goals. If you have the right people, but in the wrong seats, it will be much harder to do what you set out to do.
Many grantmakers require resumes for a program’s key staff members. And for good reason, because a staff member’s qualifications and abilities are often vital to ensuring a program is well-run and achieves its goals. Grantmakers definitely adhere to Collin’s theory about getting the right people on the bus, and that alone is a compelling reason that you should adhere to it, too.
My advice to you is to think about how you want to vet people who are involved with your program right at the outset, before you actually hire anyone. Outline what knowledge and skills that person would need to have, formalize it in an actual job description with a list of expectations and responsibilities, and then use that to make a smart hire.
If you already have a program running, make sure you have solid job descriptions in place and then think through if you have staff in the right “seats” to achieve program goals. If not, some shuffling around may be in order.
3. Ensure that what you want to provide meets a real, demonstrable need
I’m going to take just a moment to deliver some tough love. Please know that this is offered from a place of good intentions and wanting you to succeed. Ready?
If your program doesn’t solve an actual problem, serve a real need, or provide something which you can prove your patrons want, then it shouldn’t exist.
Ok, before you get out your pitchforks or write off this entire article, let me elaborate. Grantmakers want to fund things which make a big impact and make the case that the arts do solve problems and add real value to communities.
If you have a pet project which private donors also love, then by all means do it and let those donors foot the bill. But if you want grant funds, then you need to prove that your program is delivering something that is needed and meaningful.
Which means that when you design your program, you should address the need (or the community’s desire) right up front and incorporate what you know about that need or desire into how you deliver your program and how you evaluate it.
4. Ensure the way in which you deliver your program solves a problem
This one goes hand in hand with the point before it. The way in which you implement and deliver this program to the public should be a direct reflection of your knowledge of the need, desire, or problem which you attempting to meet or solve.
For example, if you know that the community wants more access to live theater performances but there’s nothing nearby, you wouldn’t create a program that only gives ballet performances. And you wouldn’t create a program that delivers live theater performances but does so at a venue half an hour away.
Your program delivery must match the need and solve the problems of its target audience. You can ensure that it does this by doing research on the problem and possible ways of addressing it and then building these methods into the core of your program design. Which leads me to point #5…..
5. Model your program on best practices, other successful programs, or adapt your design from programs that work
When you set out to research how to design and structure your program, look for others programs that are already successful at what you want to do. If there are none, look for programs that are doing something similar or have a structure that could be adapted to your purposes. Your best resource will be other nonprofit colleagues and members of relevant professional associations.
If you don’t know anyone personally at the organizations which have programs you would like to model, don’t be afraid to reach out anyway. As long as you aren’t in their target service area (i.e. direct competition), chances are good that they will be happy to give you some insight on how they’ve done things. Another good option is to pull up the 990s of organizations your intended grantmakers have funded in the past, look at their programs, and use them as a model.
You could also look up ‘best practices’ in regards to the type of program you want to create. Google is actually a great resource for this, as are the myriad of websites dedicated to nonprofit management.
Remember, don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have to. Grantmakers love to see that your program is based on a successful model, because then they know that if they invest in your program it has a much higher chance of being money well spent.
6. Streamline, streamline, streamline
Once you have the bones of your program in place, it’s time to look for places where things can be streamlined and made more efficient. This could mean combining different forms you have registrants fill out so there is less paperwork. Or it could mean eliminating an activity or data entry element that staff does in the background, but which doesn’t add real value or produce a result. Also look for ways to automate tedious tasks (Zapier is a good tool for this).
Your efforts should add up to less frustration for program participants, less work for staff, and the same or better results for the overall program.
And not surprisingly, the programs that make the biggest impact have worked to make their programs efficient. They spend their time on the activities that matter most; not busy work, redundant tasks, and things that cause frustration for their patrons.
7. Don’t ignore the boring stuff
Ok, this is one final tough love moment. I know things like filing systems, security measures, spreadsheet structure and the like are not fun. They aren’t super creative and they probably aren’t why you got into this work. But they are super important for demonstrating that you have what it takes to be a responsible manager of grant funds.
Take the time when designing a program to think about how you will protect and organize the participant data you collect, where the files will live (both hard copies and e-files), how you will schedule and remember important dates and tasks, etc.
If you prove to a grantmaker that you’ve put thought into these processes they will be more likely to fund you. And when you do get that award and put these measures into practice you’ll be actively proving that you are a good steward of grant money. And that, friends, is what helps you get funded over and over again.
If you follow these tips, I may not be able to guarantee you a certain amount of grants you’ll win each year, but I can guarantee that you’ll receive more than you would have with poorly designed programs in place. And you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done everything possible to set yourself up for success.
If you have existing programs in place that have been around for a while without being updated or re-evaluated, then I would urge you to look at them through this lens as well. Just like the facilities we work in and the computers we use everyday, the programs themselves need to be updated (or at least scrutinized) every once in a while.
This article can serve as a start for updating programs, but I’m also offering a great opportunity this month for my subscribers to win a Program Refresh Kit from Anchoring Success.
This kit gives you a simple DIY process for streamlining programs and making them as effective as possible.
It’s a condensed version of their more expensive, in-depth one-on-one consulting process for refreshing existing programs and it’s proven to get you great results. Past clients have raved over the results they’ve gotten after “refreshing” their programs and now you can do it, too, with their DIY kit (for a lot less!).
If you want all the details on why the Program Refresh Kit is amazing and how to enter to win one for FREE for your nonprofit, watch the video below and follow my instructions. You can also check out all the details on the kit here at the Anchoring Success website.
The last day to enter is September 30th, 2018 so don’t wait too long to enter the raffle. Tick tock!