Great Ideas Are Not Always Great Programs

Great Ideas Are Not Always Great Programs:
The Steps Necessary to Develop and Implement New Programs

There are people who have very creative ideas for innovative dynamic programs. The individuals can either be working for a non-profit organization or they can be social innovators that are inspired by a challenge. In either case, people who “think out of the box” and who come up with the most challenging program ideas for non-profit organizations or seek to establish their own organization should follow a number of important steps when looking to implement their idea for a new program.

1) Statement of purpose. The first step that has to be taken is to determine and clearly define the purpose of the program. Clarity of purpose makes a strong statement to the agency and to the community as to what the program aims to accomplish.

2) Educating community leadership. Once the purpose of the program is clarified the leadership in the community has to be brought into the picture. In the case of a new idea it may be part of the process of creating a new non-profit. When it involves developing a new program in an existing organization it means educating the members of the board of directors about the identified need(s) and the rationale for the agency’s investment in responding by initiating a new service or expanding an existing service.

3) Demonstrating the connection between a presenting problem and the creative idea. The program should be rooted in responding to an identified need in the community. Linking the purpose and the need is the litmus test of the relevance of the proposed program.

4) Testing out the community’s receptivity to the program. Once the leadership of the agency has agreed to move ahead there should be some “market research” conducted to determine whether there are people in the community who would avail themselves of the services and participate in the program. It is quite possible to have a very creative and innovative idea that does not have any “takers”. The agency runs the risk of investing in the development of a new program and finding out that there is no “traction” in the community. This has implications for the agency’s credibility with funders as well as other institutions that are within the organization’s social network. This stage would also include publicizing the program throughout the community.

5) Ensuring the programs financial sustainability. In planning to develop an innovative and creative program it is essential to engage in a financial planning process. It is not enough to be ready to fund the program for one year and hope that the funds can be found to sustain the program in the future. When a new agency opens its doors it has to be prepared to continue for a 3 to 5 year period, and the sources of support whether it be donors, government grants, or reimbursement for services should be identified if not committed to supporting the new venture.

If an agency is initiating a new program then the finance committee should have a plan for continuing the program for the same 3 to 5 year period. If the first years are secure then during this initial period the agency can determine if the program will sustain itself moving ahead. Without this cushion the non-profit will spend an enormous amount of energy trying to put together the funds necessary to go from year to year and will not be able to truly evaluate its impact and whether it should continue providing the service in the future.

6) Monitoring and reporting. Pilot initiatives should be monitored during the first months and years. When the agency has a program committee or professional services committee it is appropriate for there to be regular reporting to this group. The board members and professional staff have the ability to make decisions about the program based on these initial reports. If the programs need to be adjusted and trimmed back or expanded, for example, in terms of the number of participants or the number of hours, the body providing oversight can make these decisions. If the focus of these services is not meeting the clients’ or members’ needs as it is presently functioning then the changes can be made immediately when there is appropriate monitoring at this early stage.

7) Evaluating the Impact of the Program. One of the key aspects of building the credibility of a new program is providing an evaluation after the initial 3 years (and not more than 5 years). There are a number of ways of evaluating programs which do not necessarily require an expensive outside evaluator. Methodologies can be employed that focus on self-evaluation to determine the impact of programs developed by non-profit organizations. The strength of an evaluation can be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program and to attract new supporters.

Being innovative for the sake of starting something new that appears to be creative is not always in the best interest of the community. By taking the necessary precautions we can ensure our efforts are appropriately focused and have the potential to strengthen the community by providing what is needed.

These seven steps can assist those responsible for building new agencies and initiating programs. By following these steps the volunteer and professional leadership of a community non-profit organization can determine whether a creative and innovative idea can evolve into a solid and sustainable community service.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.