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  • Michelle Molina

What's a Program Description?


A program description is simply a clear concise narrative that describes your nonprofit's program: its activities, participants, context, and outcomes. It’s important to describe your programs in writing. There’s a lot that goes into your programs, much more than you may initially realize. So it’s important to start getting your thoughts down on paper.

Furthermore, getting your program description on paper will help you:

  • Describe your program to others (e.g. funders)

  • On-board new staff

  • Clarify miscommunications

  • Identify potential partners

  • Help your program evaluator better understand your work

You need to create a brief narrative that describes the who, what, when, where, and why of your nonprofit's program. Ideally, you will want a program description that can be re-purposed for other situations (e.g. grants). This may seem daunting, so I want to help break this up into more manageable pieces

Here is an outline of what this narrative could look like:

  • Overview of program, participants, and context

  • Description of activities (a bullet or paragraph for each)

  • Overview of the changes you hope happen because of this program (i.e. the why)

This blog post will walk you through a process your nonprofit can use to develop a narrative.

Step 1: Brainstorm

Brainstorming is a great way to make the development of a new document fun. If you can, invite stakeholders to participate in this process. This can be staff members, participants, volunteers, trusted friends – whomever you believe is appropriate.

There are five components that you’ll be brainstorming about: overarching program, participants, activities, context, and outcomes. I recommend having different brainstorming sessions for each, as opposed to having one very long brainstorming session. Remember, it’s okay to take breaks and come back refreshed. If you have a team that you’re working with consider adding this to an already existing meeting time. You may even want to create a standing time dedicated for capacity building in regular meetings to engage in activities like the one described here and in other posts.

Create a brainstorming space. If you’re working alone this can just mean having scratch paper. If you’re working in a group you’ll want to be able to look at each other’s ideas. You may work in front of a whiteboard. Or you can hand out post-its and use one post-it per idea.

Start by brainstorming openly.

This is the point in the brainstorming process where you just let ideas flow without criticizing them. This is called divergent thinking: where you explore as many ideas as possible. This helps create a space where people feel comfortable thinking outside the box and allows for great insights to bubble up. You’ll have time to narrow down and organize ideas a bit later. Not everything you brainstorm needs to ultimately go into your narrative. However, this will give you a working list of ideas in case you ever need to expand the narrative.

Use the following questions to start each brainstorming session:

  • Overarching program: How would you describe the program?

  • Participants: How would you describe participants?

  • Activities: How would you describe the activities that make up the program? Here, you may find it helpful to first list activities. If you think of other activities while you’re brainstorming, add them to the list.

  • Context: How would you describe the context of the program? (e.g. where does the program live in time & space?)

Do this until it starts becoming hard to think of new ideas. Then use the following questions to push your thinking for each section:

Overarching program:

  • Does your organization follow or use a framework?

  • Why did this program start?

  • What is this program about?

  • What links all the activities in this program together?

Participants:

  • What are participants’ backgrounds?

  • Where do participants come from?

  • What’s the average time a participant participates in the program?

  • When would a participant join the program?

  • What makes participants a good fit for your program?

  • Are there any milestones that make this participant right for your program?

  • What is your capacity? (e.g. do you have a limit to the number of participants you can serve?)

  • What is the minimum number of participants needed for this program?

  • What are your participants’ literacy levels?

  • What are your participants’ primary languages?

  • What are your participants’ socioeconomic statuses?

  • To what extent are participants excited to participate?

Activities:

  • What is actually taking place? Be specific. For example, if you run a mentoring program that can take many forms. Is it one-on-one, or is it in a group setting? What are people doing? Are they having discussions, or is there a curriculum, etc.

  • What type of interaction is happening during the activity?

  • How is this activity different than others offered in different programs?

  • How is this activity different than others offered in different organizations?

  • Where does this activity take place?

  • Which specific participants engage in this activity?

  • Does this activity happen at a particular time in the day?

  • Does this activity happen at a particular time of the year?

  • Why is this activity part of your program?

  • Who is leading this activity? Why?

  • How are participants being served by this activity?

  • Which participants engage in this activity? Why?

  • Are these activities based on a framework?

  • How long has this activity been in place (in this form)?

  • How has this activity evolved? Why?

  • How likely is this activity to change?

Context:

  • Does this program follow or use a framework?

  • What is needed to run this program? Personnel, funds, supplies, etc.

  • What issues was your program made to address?

  • What issues have shaped the program?

  • Are there policies that influence your program?

  • Who are the key stakeholders interested in this program?

  • Are there principles this program uses as a guide? (e.g. safety first)

  • Are there any controversies that surround the program?

  • How has the program transformed since its inception?

  • What aspects of your community influence your program?

  • How is your program funded?

Outcomes:

  • Why is this activity important to achieving your organizations mission?

  • What outcomes is it connected with? (theory of change)

  • What would success look like for this program?

  • What would failure look like?

  • What issues was your program made to address?

Again, these are just questions to make your brainstorming session more meaningful. You don’t have to have an answer to each question, nor include all your responses in the narrative.

Did you or your team use other questions? Please share it with us in the comments below!

Narrow down ideas.

After doing the open brainstorming process, you should have some characteristics that are at the core of each section. Identify those core ideas by asking yourself: Which of these ideas do people need to know to understand our program?

Consider the following questions:

  • Overarching program: What do people need to know to understand our program?

  • Participants: What do people need to understand about our participants?

  • Activities: What do people need to understand about each activity?

  • Context: What do people need to understand about our context?

  • Outcomes: Which outcomes do people need to know to understand why this program exists?

Also ask yourself: What makes our program special?

  • Overarching program: What makes our program special?

  • Participants: What makes our participants different from others?

  • Activities: What makes our activities different from others?

  • Context: What is different about our context?

  • Outcomes: How are our outcomes (or the way we work to achieve them) different from others?

Ultimately you want to identify the key ideas to include in your narrative. Hopefully, your open brainstorming session allowed you to identify some ideas that may not have been obvious at first. Since you’re working on your program everyday it may be initially difficult to identify what’s unique. Brainstorming may help you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Again, make sure to document the brainstorming session. Although you may not use everything you brainstormed, this can serve as a “bike rack” for ideas when you need to expand or change the narrative.

In summary, each brainstorming session should look like this:

  1. Select component that will be the focus: overarching program, participants, activities, context, or outcomes

  2. Create a brainstorming space

  3. Open brainstorming

  4. Narrow down ideas

  5. Document all ideas. Highlight key ideas to include in the narrative

Step 2: Draft

Start writing a draft. You should now have more clarity on what you want to share about your program in this document. Remember the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. You’ll need to figure out how to combine all the ideas into a narrative that flows and is concise. That may take time. Consider setting regular "writing sessions" into your schedule until you finish.

Creating a narrative will not only help you develop a document to share, but because you have spent time thinking about it, it will allow you to be better able to speak about your program in a clear and concise manner.

Below you’ll see the outline I recommend again:

  • Overview of program, participants, and context

  • Description of activities (a bullet or paragraph for each)

  • Overview of the changes you hope happen because of this program

If possible, make your narrative at most two pages. This will help keep it concise.

Step 3: Share

Once you have a good draft, share it with trusted people. Share it with both people who are familiar with your program, and those who are not. For those that are familiar with your program ask them the following questions:

  • Do you believe this accurately describes the program?

  • Do you believe it highlights what’s special about this program?

  • What do you think needs to be further clarified?

  • How would you make this narrative better?

For those that are unfamiliar with your program, you’ll want to also add the following questions:

  • Do you feel like you understand the program?

  • What stood out about this program?

  • What questions do you have after reading the description?

  • What was unclear?

Getting people who are not as familiar with the program to read your program description will help you get an outsider’s point of view. Remember, this narrative will be shared with people who are not as familiar with your program (e.g. a new consultant, new staff, potential funders, etc.). Remember you are your program’s expert. Things that seem obvious to you may not be as obvious to others. So, make sure to discuss areas that seemed confusing to them.

Step 4: Revise

Make revisions as you get feedback. You don’t need to listen to everyone’s suggestions, but it is important to consider each.

It’s difficult for all of us to get feedback. There may be a few comments that might get under your skin a little. That’s fine, keep in mind that your reviewers are more than likely trying to help. If there is a particular comment that doesn’t make sense or stings, set it aside and set time to explore it later.

Consider the following questions:

  • What can be further clarified?

  • What can be cut out?

  • What needs to be added?

  • What do people focus on? Why?

Step 5: Continuous iteration

Once you refine your narrative you will want to revise it periodically. Your programs evolve and change, so should this document. One way to do this is to create a ritual (e.g. once a year or once every 5 years) where you review this document and others like it.

Consider the following questions:

  • What’s changed about the program? Why?

  • What can be clarified?

  • Who should see this document?

  • How can this document be better leveraged?

By revisiting and editing your program descriptions you’ll also have documentation of how your programs have changed over time and why. I'm sure your program evaluator would be interested in understanding that.

So what? Where does evaluation fit in?

Your program evaluator will bring technical expertise about how to collect and interpret data. You understand your program more than your evaluators ever will. However, this document gets some of that knowledge on paper in an easy to share way. A program description will help the program evaluator understand your program and its context better. It should give them better insights on what methods and techniques will work best for your program. Which will ultimately make the evaluation more meaningful.

Get a summary of this post!

Resources:

Better evaluation – Develop Initial Description

Outlines how to describe what is being evaluated.

http://www.betterevaluation.org/en/plan/define/develop_initial_description

The Systems Evaluation Protocol

Provides guidance on how to describe your program (page 17).

Monica J. Hargraves and Jane C. Buckly, Editors. (2015) Workbook For the Systems Evaluation Protocol. Cornell Office for Research on Evaluation, Ithaca, NY.

https://core.human.cornell.edu/documents/Workbook_1.1_covered.pdf

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