So You Want to Develop a Program, Here's Where You Start - Program Planning Series Part One : Successful Nonprofits

Episode 125

So You Want to Develop a Program, Here's Where You Start - Program Planning Series Part One

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Episode 125

So You Want to Develop a Program, Here's Where You Start - Program Planning Series Part One

Listen on  iTunes    Android     Stitcher  Libsyn

by GoldenburgGroup

Step One: Figure out what need your proposed program is going to address.

Flood waters of Biblical proportions have forced Dolph to go solo for a few podcast episodes! It’s all good, as Dolph kicks of a Mini Program Planning Series today. In part one, Dolph provides step-by-step check points of the crucial components involved in creating a successful program plan.

*****Timestamped Highlights*****

(3:19) Dolph’s cautionary tale about program design
(8:37) Back to the drawing board
(10:52) 1st step: figure out what need your program is going to address.
(11:30) Identifying data sources to establish need
(15:03) 2nd step: define the program or service are you going to provide.
(16:22) You’ll need a program planning group, and here’s why.

How do you know the need exists? Research!
Government data, strategic plan, partner organizations, community surveys…

(19:04) 3rd step: figure out the logistics – including the who, where, when, and everything in between.
(20:15) 3a: outreach
(21:10) 3b: put partnerships on paper
(21:59) 3c: staying on the right side of the law
(23:12) 3d: put together a documentation plan
(23:55) 3e: hammer out auxiliary services – what they are, who will provide them, and what those relationships will look like
(24:12) And yes, your logistics will overlap!
(25:00) Next week: Setting goals, tracking goals, finding initial and sustained funding, and identifying out-of-the-box ideas!

Download my two-page program planning handout

Read the Transcript for Episode 125 Below or Click Here!

Step Two: Determine the program or service you want to provide.

Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. Now before we get started with the topic today, let me first just share with you a little bit about what’s been going on in my household. So, um, gosh, maybe about six or eight weeks ago, we sold our home. We had planned to move into an apartment because we’re thinking about maybe leaving the country sometime in the next couple of years and right now seems like a really good time to sell a home, but not a good time to buy one. So, we sold our home, we moved into a lovely apartment that we both really liked, we just finished getting our art on the walls and getting fully unpacked. And the day before I was supposed to leave for a work trip to Phoenix, our home floods. Essentially, a contractor sliced through the water main that turns out was outside the unit, and it completely and totally floods the apartment.

And not only does it flood our apartment, we were renting a condo from an individual, but it actually flooded the condos on either side of us and below us. It was just raining in the condos below us. It was literally raining in the parking deck. That’s how much water came into our new home. And so now we’re in this awkward position where we have to pack up and try to salvage our stuff and move again. So we did not have a very long time to find our next home. We’re now in a townhome a few blocks away. This long story is just to kind of explain that for the last six weeks I’ve really not been able to batch record podcast episodes with guests. Originally, I just set up the new home studio cause I typically record this in my home office, the new homes studio in the apartment that flooded. When it flooded, we ended up in frankly a town home that’s not quite as ideal for I’m recording.

So I’m working on trying to figure all of that out now. So long story short, the next several episodes are going to be solo episodes. I had to cancel our batch recordings in April and in May. We will be recording again in June. I’ve got some really great information to share with listeners, and I think you’re really going to like the next several episodes. The next few episodes are going to be about program planning. I think a lot of organizations and a lot of individuals, especially smaller nonprofits, have a great program idea, but they’re just not really certain how to make that work as a program plan and then in implementation. I’m going to walk folks through a really simple two-page program plan model, and if you can answer all of these questions, then you are probably ready to actually write your program plan and implement your program.

And what’s more, if you can answer all of these questions, you probably also have a darn good grant proposal ahead of you. So let’s jump right into it and let’s start talking about program planning. And I want to do that by sharing with you listeners. Probably my worst program planning fiasco ever when I was fresh out of undergraduate school. I was 22 years old. It’s 1994. I had a newly-minted Bachelor of Social Work, and I went to social work school because I really wanted to tackle the problem of homelessness in the city of Atlanta. I knew that with the great ideas that I had, we could make a real dent in homelessness and maybe even end homelessness in the city of Atlanta. My first job was a Jewish family career services and I’ll always be grateful for them. They took a risk on me. I had no experience, and they took a risk on me.

At that job, I was a halftime case manager and a half-time program coordinator, and as program coordinator, I was not actually running the program. What I was doing though was writing grant proposals for that program. Early on in my tenure at JFCS, I had the opportunity to write a supportive housing program grant through the HUD NoFA process. I worked on that proposal with both my supervisor in the homeless program and JFCS as well as a former professor. I used to joke that she was the only professor that ever gave me a B in both undergraduate and graduate school. Every other professor gave me an A, but she was a tough grader, and I got a B in her class. I knew that she was the person that I wanted to go to because she would really critique my proposal as well as really critique my program design and help ensure that we had a strong proposal and a strong design.

And so we essentially put together a program with three parts. The first was kind of like an outpatient group or a series of groups for people who are substance users. The second component was a family preservation for homeless families. And that third component was some domestic violence intervention. So, we put together these three components, and I was super excited about writing this proposal. I actually remember like getting up at 1:00 AM and two o’clock in the morning just so I could write the proposal and still have time to see my homeless clients in the program.

Finally, we finished the proposal, sent it into HUD. By the way, these are the olden days, so nothing was submitted electronically. We’re talking binders and lots of them. We UPS’d binders up to HUD. As I look back on it, I think my supervisors and my former professor and even my executive director probably thought that this was a good opportunity for me to write my first federal grant proposal but were not expecting that it would actually get funded.

As with most federal funding, we did not hear back immediately. And then sometime in November or December of that same year, we get a fax from HUD. I’m one of the old-fashioned waxy fax papers that curl up and it says, “Congratulations. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded you a grant of $343,514.” That’s how impactful that grant was in my head that to this day, I still remember the exact amount of that three-year grant. So, it was also really impactful for the organization. Up to this point, that was the largest single government grant they had ever received and was a little bit of a game changer because ultimately it gave the organization experience not only in writing government grants, really large federal government grants, but also in managing them and really enabled the organization to grow significantly over several years.

But now I’m kind of fast forwarding a little bit too much. So again, we got that notice from HUD in November, December, and over the next few months, we worked on putting the program together, hiring staff, making sure we’d finalize the curriculum, doing all of that. I still recall the very first day that our new services we’re supposed to start.

We opened the doors expecting that we’re going to have a few dozen people walk through, and nobody walks through.

That’s right. No one walked through.

Non-optional: Establish a program planning or design group.

So, now we’re all a little bit fearful and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve designed this great program. We’ve reached out to prospective partners, and no one’s coming.” We spend that afternoon calling our partners telling them, “Hey, we’ve opened up. Please make sure you send people tomorrow.” We opened the doors the next day, and guess what?

That’s right. Nobody showed up, again.

So, at this point I’m starting to panic. You know, up to this point I’d felt like, Hey, I’m the golden child. I got this money and we’re going to do great things. And now I’m thinking, “Okay, we got this money, and now we might completely and totally fall on our face and fail and that’s going to reflect really poorly on me. And it’s not good for the organization. It does not make a dent in what I really care about, which is housing and homelessness.”

So we went back to the drawing board, and it’s what we should have done to design the program in the first place. We actually then went out and kind of had conversations with homeless folks standing in lines at soup kitchens in the mornings and in the afternoons and had conversations with homeless folks who are waiting to go into a nice shelter just to find out what they were looking for, what they needed and how we could get them into the door and really access our services.

Now, interestingly enough, one of the things that we found is that since our service was starting at 10 o’clock in the morning, a lot of homeless folks, um, we’re just starting to line up for a lunchtime soup kitchen about 10:00 AM. So they essentially would have to make a choice of, are we going to get food or are we going to get services? We realized we had to change our program design is that if we were going to be providing any type of service mid-morning or midafternoon, we had to be willing to provide food as well. So then we got some corporate partners to donate food on a regular basis. And guess what? That solved a lot of our problem. Suddenly homeless folks were like, “Okay, we can use your services, and we can benefit from your services.”

Now we ended up tweaking a number of other things as well to ensure that the program would be successful, but I just use that as one key example that in designing this program, we never actually talked to any homeless people about what not only did they need, but that if they wanted to access that service, what other services had to be provided so they would be able to?

So that is a quick story about how we did a rush program design, did not do all of the work that was necessary and nearly experienced failure as a result of it. So with that cautionary tale, let’s start down this road of creating your program design. And this program plan could be for anything. It could be for folks who are homeless. It could be an arts or culture program. It could be a program for older adults. This planning process works regardless of the type of program that you’re thinking about starting.


The first thing you want to do is figure out your need and put that down as a needs statement. Ask, what specific need is your program going to address? In the story I shared, the need that the program was going to address was the need for outpatient substance abuse groups, the need for family preservation for homeless families and the need for some more domestic violence intervention. Those were the three needs. But don’t just outline those needs. You also have to document how you know those needs exist. Now, there are a number of source documents that you can look at when you’re trying to figure out whether or not the need exists.

First, if you have a strategic plan, you have already documented some or all of that need in your strategic plan. There’s also a plethora of government data. You probably have a local regional planning commission that has a lot of data on homelessness, senior services, and so much more.

Now, let me also just take a quick moment and share with listeners that there’s a helicopter directly above our home right now. The sound quality probably just went down a little bit, and Gosh, I apologize for that, but we just don’t have the sound studio set up yet. Once it’s set up, we hopefully won’t experience that as we’re doing recordings. And again, let me just say that’s also why I’ve kind of chosen not to have guests on right now. If the sound quality’s not going to be great, I’d rather that happen with me than with our guests.

If you’re an art and cultural organization and if you’re in a big city, there’s probably an office that manages art and culture programs and initiatives in your city. There is certainly an art and culture initiative department in your state. All of those entities also gather a lot of important data that you can use. Please make sure you figure out which government departments, whether it’s at your city, county, state, or federal levels, that you can get some of the data that you need.

Also, think about your own client data sets. Assuming you’ve been seeing clients for a few years, that’s a pretty rich dataset, and it will help lay out what some of the other needs might be.

Another good thing to do, and this is true whether you’ve been seeing clients for 10 years or have not seen your first client yet, is to talk to some of the partner organizations to see if they would be willing to share some of their client-related data in an anonymized form as well. I just simply cannot say enough about making sure you mine that client data to figure out what the needs are for the people that you’re serving. Also, if you already have clients coming in your door, you can survey your clients. If you don’t have clients coming in your door, you can survey the community you want to serve. Do not underestimate the power of surveys. They will help you document needs that you could be filling.

The final two I want to mention, make sure that you do an academic research literature survey. You can often find really great data. It may not pertain to your community, but what it will do is show that your need is not unique and has been experienced elsewhere and that there are successful models for meeting and addressing that need. And then of course, the last piece, and this kind of touches back on where we had to go out to soup kitchens and talked to homeless folks. Don’t forget the antidotal data. Talk to the communities you’re going to serve or the people that you may be serving and ask them what they think, ask them, Hey, what’s the need?” Then have those follow-up conversations as well as you’re moving through your program plan.

Tap these people for the program design group: Staff, volunteers, board members, partner organizations, potential clients.

Once you’ve identified the need, then you kind of have to have a sense of what program or service are you going to propose. The need might be great, but your program or service, especially early on, she would probably be pretty narrow and pretty focused. As an example, if I had it to do over again, I probably would not have written that three-part HUD funding request. I probably only would have done one part, so I probably either would have chosen family preservation or I probably would’ve chosen substance use groups to help people kick their addiction. When doing all three, the staff were much more stretched. Our focus was much more stretched, and our marketing and outreach to clients was also just an elastic band that was nearly at the breaking point. Again, as you think about your program or your service, your needs that you have identified may be very broad, but try to make sure that you narrow it down to something that is almost laser-focused. In a few years, you might want to add something, but start with the very specific

Now once you have a sense of what program you actually want to offer, now you kind of have to decide do we want to start a program planning group? And that’s a group of individuals that could include be staff, could be volunteers, could be board members, could be some combination of all of those who are going to be helping us really plan this program.

With my HUD proposal, I had a very small program planning group. I had a former professor from college and my program director, and they were kind of each giving me feedback and then I was doing a lot of the legwork. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have pulled in maybe a board member with some subject matter expertise in homelessness. I probably would have pulled in maybe a couple partner organizations that I thought it would really be working closely with us in implementing this program and referring clients to us. And that would have divided the workup. Maybe I would have not have had to get up as many times at two o’clock in the morning to write the proposal because other people will be doing some work. That it also would have been bringing in additional perspectives and asking additional questions. One of the reasons why we had no clients come through the door when we first opened on that very first day and on that second day is because we did not have anyone asking enough of those tough questions to really ensure that we add a tight program design and that we had a design that was going to be effective and would work.

I’m a fan of the program planning group, and if I were going to start a new program today, I would not dream of trying to start one without first putting together my program planning group.

Once you get that group together, they probably will contribute to the needs assessment as you share your data on the needs assessment. You might ask them where there might be gaps and holes, and they’ll help you fill in your needs assessment, making it even stronger. You should also ask them to help you refine that laser-focused program you are planning. It’s really important to go into this process openly, not by saying, for instance, “Okay, I am only going to do family preservation. Again, be open in that process.

Once you and your planning group have finalized the statement of need and have focused in on that very precise program that you want to offer, start working on the logistics. You are going to have a lot of logistics. Make sure that you think through all of them so that you have an effective program that people want to access. Here are some examples of questions to ask when figuring out your program’s logistics:


  • How many people are you going to serve?
  • What staff do you need to do that?
  • What were their roles and responsibilities be?


  • Where will you be doing this?
  • Do you need a new facility?
  • Can you do it in your existing facility?
  • Can you maybe use a partner’s facility?

Food services:

  • What times will we serve refreshments?


  • What transportation services will we offer?

Don’t forget outreach. It’s super important that as part of your program plan, you figure out how you’re going to actually reach out to your target client or your target community. Going back to my story I shared in the beginning, we found that our outreach was most impactful when we took our social workers to soup kitchens and hung out with people waiting in line for shelter.

Of course, that may not be the best outreach for everybody. If you are a new theatrical performance outlet, you probably don’t want to hang out with people in lines waiting to get into a playhouse and talk to them about your theatrical performance. Your partners may not take that well. When you are doing outreach, think about what is appropriate for the demographic groups and communities that you are trying to reach.

Also, think about your partners and the role they play. Ask yourself, do we want a memorandum of understanding or an agreement with each of them in terms of the expectations and standards? It’s best for you and your prospective partners to iron the details out and put it on paper. After all, communicating the expectations and standards in writing makes partners take you and your program seriously and steers partner organizations to make key decisions of whether or not they have the capacity to partner with your organization for your program.

Step Three: It’s all about the logistics.

Other logistics you should consider include your legal compliance and regulations. If you’re going to be serving food, make sure you have the license necessary from the health department. If you’re going to have a client waiver, be certain to have a lawyer for legal support review the waiver to ensure the waiver actually manages your risk. In fact, it is best for you and your program design team to try to list all of the possible ways you might need some legal counsel as you implement this program. Trust me, you would rather be on the right side of the law than to have a bad experience. do the diligence necessary so that you do not jeopardize your program.

The second to last logistic you should think about as you and your program planning group are really putting together the design is necessary documentation. Will you have client waivers? Will you have case notes? If so, how will you store them? What are they going to look like? If you are a theatre group, will you have a finance manual or something similar? Making sure you have your documentation together is going to be really critical, especially as you bring on staff and start to serve your first clients.

Finally, the last logistic your program design team must pay close attention to are your auxiliary services – those services that maybe do not plan to provide but will be critical for both your program’s and clients’ success. Think about what the services may be, who could provide them and the relationship of these two aspects.

It is key to remember that your areas of logistics will overlap. So, for example, when we talk about auxiliary services, we’re often also talking about partner relationships. When we’re talking about partner relationships, we’re also talking often about an MOU that an attorney should review. These areas of logistics are not silos. The areas overlap, and, thus, it is important that you address them all at the same time.

In our next episode, we’re going to have a conversation about setting goals, tracking goals, finding that initial funding for your program and sustaining funding. We’re also going to discuss a few out-of-the-box ideas that I really want you and your program design group to think about as you implement your program.

I have been thrilled to have you with us this week, and I hope that part one of our mini program planning series has helped provide you with some insight that will help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.


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