Sustainable Program Design: Where To Start

Often, (too often in my opinion) great social enterprises are started and stopped. They were started with the promise of engaging the least of these, filling in a service gap, or enabling community progress. They end with bitter feelings of a community ill-equipped and non-supportive.

I mention this because the reality of other social enterprises should be your first consideration as you contemplate the pursuit of your idea.

I support your idea and passion, but you must also articulate a mechanism. Intervening, you must also be able to articulate a mechanism that reasonably could be considered to work. I submit to you that social enterprises END because they lack a clear articulation of mechanism.  I say “end” because they do not often “fail.” They serve a purpose for a year or two. They engage clients and provide services. They help at least one. But, they END not realizing the vision of helping hundreds. I will begin your consultation with a review and restructuring of your idea and passion so that it is compatible with an articulation of mechanism.

From Idea & Passion to Problem & Impact

Your first thought is to run with an idea, motivated by your passion. I encourage you to nurture that relationship. Intrinsic motivation is a flower to be cultivated. I also want you to add a clear articulation of Problem and Impact to your repertoire. Stated in the emotion of idea and passion, your mentoring program may be expressed as, “The program is needed. It will change lives and encourage kids to complete high school.”  The difference expressed with problem and impact may be, “Our current graduation rate is below 40%. We understand that the lack of role models with college degrees is a problem. Our program will connect youth with mentors who will engage them and model completion of high school. Our program will also demystify the process and complete college acceptance applications with the youth.”

Problem & Impact

The difference is the addition of a clear articulation of the problems to be addressed coupled with specific interventions meant to address each of the problems. Your task is illustrated in the graphic #1. You must trace the current time line, a reality without your intervention. Then, you must contrast an alternate timeline, a reality WITH your intervention included.

From Program to Mechanism

Your consideration of your program leads you to consider the activities that are needed in the context of those that you are best equipped to provide. But, sustainable program design suggests that you also consider the profiles of the clients who will engage your system. You will also do well to consider the creation of mechanisms to address moments when your program activities do not yield the desired outcomes.

Controllables. These are the activities that you naturally consider in the planning of your program. I suggest that you identify these second, after you consider the profiles of the clients who will engage with your system–the uncontrollables.

Uncontrollables. These are the characteristics and tendencies created from background, trauma, and expectations. Consider what your typical client will bring to your endeavor. Identify the typical client specifically. Know the type and profile of clients to which you can provide help. This achieves two goals. It keeps your work more focused, and it enables you to intentionally address the issued that you clients bring. Once you have the profiles created, then create your “controllables” to address each of the issues you have identified.

Execution. Challenges that you did not create an activity for will occur. But, you must plan for them. You do this by making educated guesses about the problems that you may have. You then create policies and procedures for handling these variations. Your client profiles may not indicate that these challenges will arise, but your knowledge of human behavior, group dynamics, and prior experience may indicate the need to be prepared.  The difference is that the “execution” are not typical program activities, at least originally in the program planning. If an execution continues to occur, you can create new program activities during your program renewal cycle. Typically, you consider program renewal after the fiscal year or annual report is completed.


Consider the following example, Graphic #2, based on the conception of a mentoring program:



[Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW]