Principled Program Design

Last year in January, I was invited to give a talk at my alma mater, the University of Kansas, to help set up a weekend charrette for student teams to create architectural and design solutions to community problems related to water and food security. The slides here helped me tell the story of our evolving work to co-design a comprehensive, innovative strategy for generating additional income for farmworkers in Mississippi.


What I wanted to share was a framework for how we think about designing, developing, and launching high-impact new programs with our nonprofit and philanthropy clients. Here’s the list of principles:

  • Asset-based perspective
  • Less-visible leadership
  • Sustainability lens (econ-envr-culture)
  • Aggressively inclusive
  • Skills transfer
  • Critical friend and collaborative partner
  • Optimistic practicality

Each of these concepts deserves further treatment, but quickly:

  • Asset-based Perspective. We start with discovering an organization’s and community’s assets. Our thinking on this is rooted in asset-based development theory, which I was introduced to 16 years ago when working with First Nations Development Institute. In essence, we try to start by focusing on opportunity and on what is working, as opposed to what’s messed up.
  • Less-visible Leadership. While out teams bring deep experience and broad connections, but our position is that of a supporting partner, leading and supporting from beside or behind. The label “less-visible leader” is one coined by colleague and admired fundraising and organizational development trainer Andy Robinson in a publication by Institute for Conservation Leadership.
  • Sustainability Lens. The problems our clients are dealing with tend to be complex, and deeply-rooted, and so it’s important to view them through economic, cultural, and environmental lenses. Working on problems without acknowledging and understanding the context leaves potential partners and allies aside — and making that mistake can translate into leaving money and resources on the table.
  • Aggressively Inclusive. ChangeMatters teams are more than assertive about looking for opportunities to increase connection and diversity in all of our work. We don’t get it right all the time but have always been committed to the work it takes to bake diversity, equity, and inclusion into our engagements.
  • Skills Transfer. Our commitment is to sharing and offering what we know and have come to learn. Our expectation is for exchange. Our consulting model is not based on keeping clients dependent on our direct involvement, but focuses on strengthening everybody’s kills and abilities. The goal is to get to a place of strength, autonomy, and greater impact.
  • Critical Friend and Collaborative Partner. Useful critique comes with — or rather, after — trust. Critique is directed toward what our colleagues are creating (not necessarily with what we or someone else might think up instead. I have been inspired by Liz Lerman and John Borstel’s theories on critique of creative work and rely on the field’s models and best practices in collaboration, collective impact, systems, and teams.
  • Optimistic Practicality. Balancing vision and practice is a real and tough tension in social change, social service, social enterprise, and philanthropy. The challenge among a lot of our clients (and ourselves) has been a struggle to put together puzzle pieces of funding and partners, with a glue mixture of narrative, strategy, trust, spit, sweat, and duct tape. The trickiest pieces typically are funding sources that aren’t an easy fit. And people in leadership roles who aren’t the right fit for the particular project or moment in time. These days, along with all our colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropy sector, we are focusing more and more on measurable impact to demonstrate social return on investment (SROI). Thinking, planning, and practical action, with an underlying drive toward what is possible and an unrelenting focus on building the resource base, that’s an orientation that can create the best results.