how to develop community programs

How to develop programs that impact your community

Have you ever wanted to address a need in your community but weren’t quite sure how to do it? Or perhaps you’ve created a program to address a community need, but it wasn’t as successful as you were hoping?

If so, check out these five steps on how to develop community programs that I’ve found to be simple and effective:


This is probably the most overlooked part of developing a new program. We often assume there’s a need based solely on our day-to-day interactions with community members. While these interactions are definitely a great way to identify potential need, they aren’t enough to justify the time and resources it takes to launch a new program or service. Perhaps more importantly, if you can’t confirm a need for your program, you won’t be able to secure external funding to sustain it.

To confirm there’s a need for a new program, you’ll want to collect primary and/or secondary data.

Primary data are data you collect for a specific purpose. In this case, it would be for identifying whether your community has a need that could be addressed through your new program. Here are some ways you might collect primary data from your community:

  • Extract data from the information you’ve already collected from your community. This may be from client enrollment or intake forms or electronic health records.
  • Conduct a focus group to gather insight from community members on what their needs are, factors that may be contributing to these needs, and ideas for addressing the need.
  • Create and administer a needs assessment survey to determine the prevalence of the need and possible contributing factors.
  • Conduct key informant interviews with community members.

Secondary data are widely available data collected by an external organization that may show there’s a need in your community. Examples of secondary data include poverty statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, teen birth rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the results from a community needs assessment your local hospital conducted.

Helpful tip: If you’re going to need grant funds to support this program, be sure to also collect data that indicate how your community compares to other communities. You may have an identified need, but if you’re doing much better than other communities, you likely won’t be able to win grants from funders who fund at the state or national levels.

The second step in confirming the need is to determine if there’s another organization(s) already working to address this need. If so, meet with them to discuss their approach and possible collaboration. The last thing you want to do is duplicate efforts if it’s not necessary. This is a guaranteed way to waste time and resources and limit your chances of securing grant funding.


Once you’ve confirmed the need, you’ll want to explore the main contributing factors to this issue in your community. This will help you narrow the focus of your program to only address the relevant contributing factors.

The quickest way to do this is to identify all known contributing factors and then determine how prevalent these factors are in your community. Here’s an example:

Research compiled by the Food Research & Action Center shows that the following factors contribute to obesity: limited access to physical activity opportunities, increased snacking, prescription drugs, inadequate sleep, stress, and poverty. You then find data from the U.S. Census Bureau that show your county has the highest poverty rate in the state. Data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show your county also has the highest adult physical inactivity rate in the state.

Based on these data, you decide to focus your obesity prevention program on 1) easy, free ways to increase physical activity and 2) ways to cook healthy on a budget.


If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to start thinking about your new program’s details. But before you pull out your program development tools, look for an existing program that has been proven to work. Fortunately for you, there are thousands of evidence-based and evidence-informed programs that address all kinds of issues in a variety of populations. Here are just a few examples of searchable databases you can use to find an effective program:

As you’re exploring existing programs, you’ll want to consider some key questions to determine if a program is a good fit for your organization and community:

  • Does this program address the main contributing factors in my community?
  • Has this program been used in populations that are demographically similar to my community?
  • If not, does the program allow for any adaptations so that it’s more culturally appropriate?
  • Will my community be receptive to this program’s approach?
  • Do we have the capacity to deliver the program with fidelity? (This means you’ll implement the program exactly as required by the program’s developers.)
  • Do we have the money to pay for the program and participant materials and any required staff training?


If you can’t find an existing program, you’ll have to develop your own program. The simplest approach to developing a program is to think through all the program details with your staff, community members, and stakeholders. Here are some things you’ll want to think about:

  • Name of the program
  • Focus population
  • Goals and objectives (for the entire program and individual sessions)
  • Dosage (i.e., Is the intent for a participant to attend one session or five weekly sessions?)
  • How often the program will be offered
  • Staffing and the percentage of time each staff member will dedicate to the program
  • Community partners who can help you with referrals, advertising, implementation, etc.
  • How you’ll generate interest
  • How you’ll evaluate your program
  • Budget

Once you’ve considered all the major components, create a program description. This can help you create advertisements, share relevant details with community stakeholders, and can be used in future grant applications.


The greatest program in the world will flop if you don’t adequately prepare for implementation.

One of your first preparation steps might be to secure funding. You can find funding for your program by reallocating existing funds, hosting a fundraiser, asking for donations, charging for the program, or finding and applying to grants.

A few other steps to ensure you’re prepared to implement your new program:

  • Get any necessary memoranda of understanding/agreement signed by your partner organizations
  • Hire and train staff
  • Secure your meeting location and program resources
  • Ensure adequate enrollment
  • Create any data collection tools and processes needed to evaluate the program

You might also want to consider piloting the program on a small scale first to help you identify and address any unforeseen issues.


Okay, technically this is four steps, but they’re so interconnected that we’ll consider them one.

As you begin program implementation, you’ll be continuously monitoring to determine if the program is being implemented as expected and to identify any improvements your participants experience. All of these data will then be compiled to evaluate how effective your program is so you can refine it (or cancel it) as necessary.

Okay, that’s it! Five basic steps for developing amazing programs that make an impact in your community.

If you’re looking for a program planning approach that’s a little less basic, there are lots of published models and frameworks you can use, such as the PRECEDE-PROCEED model, a logic model, the social-ecological model, the Planned Approach to Community Health (PATCH), and many more!

Do you need help with any part of program development? Contact us to learn more about how we can help!

Do you have other tips for developing community programs?
Please share below!

Melissa Reams
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Grant Readiness

March 19, 2019

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