November 2, 2016

Details, Details, Don’t Bother Me with the Details: Why Program Design Really Does Matter

According to the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, “the devil is in the detail” refers to the fine print, or “catch,” hidden in the minutiae of something. This concept of caring about the particulars has a number of variants, such as “god is in the detail,” meaning whatever you do, be sure to do it thoroughly because details do matter![1]

In grant writing and the nonprofit world, details are especially important. If you don’t follow instructions you will not be funded, and if your program does not perform well or do what it is created to do, you will struggle to support it. When it comes to designing programs and proposals, the details are paramount. When proposing funding for a program, be it existing or new, you need to build a proposal that navigates a complex system of interests that includes your organizational mission, partner missions, and funder priorities. It can be very tempting to apply for large grants without taking the time to assess organizational fit, capacity, and funder priorities. But, don’t chase the money! If a program doesn’t align extremely well with what you do and/or want to do, it will be a waste of time. Designing a new program that is compelling, useful, and worthy of funding involves several complex considerations, which I discuss below.

Partnerships – Increasingly, funders are looking for programs that are collaborative and leverage existing resources to serve your clients; often, it is not enough to simply do a good job yourself without leveraging other resources for community impact. Strong partnerships can be an amazing resource, but they can also complicate program design and implementation with various priorities and expertise. Competitiveness will often require your organization to forge new partnerships (or take existing relationships in new directions) with individuals, communities, corporations, evaluators, and other nonprofits. Because these relationships are meant to be enduring, it is important to carefully select partners that are vital to your work, complement weak areas, and can augment the success of your program and organization. Collaborate strategically!

Alignment – A strong program should align with your organization’s mission, values, and core competencies, as well as with your partner and funder priorities. Your vision – the “big picture” – should be unifying without changing dramatically over time. Avoid getting into projects or pursuing grants that force you to shift your objectives, or those which cannot be reasonably achieved. This is called mission creep, and can lead to trying to do too much without doing it well! No matter how large the award amounts, do your research and do not apply for grants that do not match your organization’s central activities and your clients’ needs. Keep in mind during the brainstorming and design process that, if funded, your organization will be responsible for implementing your new program. Do you believe you have what it takes to be successful?

Goals, Outputs, and Outcomes – A strong program will be coherent and complete, with fully-realized goals and SMART objectives, clear inputs and outputs, measurable outcomes, and achievable timelines. Goals are the overarching aims of your project, and should lend themselves to your vision. SMART objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Oriented, and Time-Bound. Inputs and outputs answer the question, “What is my organization able and willing to commit to this project (time, money, staffing, facilities, equipment, etc.) and what will it produce (goods, services, an event, etc.)?” Finally, outcomes are changes in attitudes, perceptions, knowledge, skills, and/or behavior that come about as the result of a project. These are critical because they are, ultimately, the metrics that will help you determine whether a program is successful, and you will be bound to them. Thinking through these elements thoroughly at the start of the planning phase will aid your organization in program design, implementation, and getting all partners on the same page early on.

Visual aids – Visual aids are important for any successful design and can help you plan out your program by visually representing it. A logic model can aid you in thinking through goals and objectives, while a timeline can help you think about what is reasonable to achieve. An organizational chart or workplan can show who is doing what. And let’s not forget budgets! The budget is a critical tool to nail down as early as possible, as it helps all partners understand your program’s scope within the award limits. If you can’t visually represent your program in one page or less, it hasn’t been thought through well enough to execute! Visual aids also strengthen proposals by showing reviewers an overview of your program. Once you’ve been funded, these tools can be useful for marketing and recruitment.

Famous designer Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details, they make the product just like the details make the architecture. The gauge of the wire, the selection of the wood, the finish of the castings — the connections, the connections, the connections. It will be in the end these details that provide service to the customers, and give the product its life.”[2] Eames was speaking about high-end furniture design, while I am speaking about high-end program design, but the sentiment is the same! The details give the program its life and strength. Quality grant writing cannot make up for a lack of a solid program design. Being strategic, thinking through each element carefully, and staying true to your mission and vision will help guide your organization through the proposal process and beyond. In program design and grant writing, either the devil is in the detail or the design is in the detail – don’t let them become one and the same!

[1] Titelman, Gregory. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. Random House Reference, 1996.

[2] Eames, Charles. ECM. Eames Office, 1961.

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