The 10 Step Guide to Program Planning

We've outlined below some action steps to help you plan a successful and effective youth program. Whether you're offering an in-school or out-of-school program, good planning is very often the key to success.

You may find that you have the time and resources to do some of these action steps while others may be beyond the scope of your current priorities or capacity. Just remember, it's never too late to embark on a particular phase of planning, even after a program has launched.

After you've read the 10 action steps below, take a look at the Program Planning Checklist. By the end of your planning process, you should be able to answer most, if not all, of the checklist questions.

Step 1) Do a Landscape Survey

A landscape survey pinpoints the people and organizations you need to know about to run your program. A landscape might cover a particular service area, an entire city, a region, or perhaps even groups across the country. It might include: groups that are providing similar services; foundations, school programs, government agencies, corporations, or individuals that provide funding or other types of support for your kind of program. Or it might include research, policy, or academic groups that are writing about or studying the work that your program will do.

The objective is to make sure that your program's development is informed by an awareness of existing initiatives. This awareness reduces redundancy by uncovering groups and individuals that may have useful information or experience upon which you can build. It provides the information that allows you to determine how and whether your program supports, complements, or contrasts with other programs.

The scope of your landscape survey should take into consideration the different aspects of the program you wish to develop. For example, if you intend to provide services to adults as well as children, find out about adult education and adult employment training programs (with or without a technology component) in your area in addition to looking up youth development, after-school, and out-of-school programs for youth.

As a document, a landscape doesn't need to be complicated. At a minimum, it should include the names, contact information, and a short one or two sentence description of each person and/or organization uncovered in the search.

Step 2) Get the Facts

Your organization will be in a stronger position to determine the focus of your technology-enhanced learning programs if you get the straight facts on what kind of computer and Internet access your current and future youth and adult participants have at home and at school. This information is also important for grant proposals and reports to funders and other program supporters.

It is helpful to find out: How many of your participants have a computer and Internet access at home? For those who do, what do they use it for? Do the schools that the youth in your program attend have computers in the classrooms or in computer labs? If so, what kind and how much hardware, software, and Internet access is available at the school? How much time, on average, do students spend on computers each day? Do they receive instruction on how to use the computers, software, and the Internet? Is computer use integrated into curriculum and school activities?

Step 3) Conduct a Staff Audit

All the staff and volunteers who will potentially be involved with technology-enriched lessons as instructors, class assistants, class participants, or chaperones should be brought into discussions at an early stage of planning to gather their ideas, questions, and suggestions. It is particularly important to have an open discussion about the skills that staff and volunteers already have, and the skills they want or will need to develop in order to contribute as instructors and participants. Staff and volunteers should have an opportunity to talk about the concerns, risks, and challenges as well as the positive developments they anticipate.

Why is it so important to find out specifically what your staff and volunteers can do well, can't do well, want to learn how to do, and don't want to do? Very simply, because the success of the programs rests on their shoulders. The first set of learning activities that you offer should be closely aligned to staff and volunteer strengths and interests. Some youth programs have a clear focus on visual arts, music, dance, sports, or other areas that can be enhanced and expanded through technology. As your youth program grows, you may be able to retain paid or volunteer instructors who can help branch the program into new areas.

A staff audit might also reveal gaps that point to the need for staff training or perhaps even a redirection of the learning programs. For example, your organization may want to provide homework support for school age children that involves the use and learning of technology. A discussion with staff about the challenges they face in helping children with homework may reveal that staff don't have much information on the homework that is being assigned to children, or don't have tutoring skills in children's homework subject areas.

Step 4) Do a Youth Audit

Adults who work with youth often talk about the importance of listening to youth and giving them options, but somehow we often neglect to give children the opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions about the youth programs we create for them. As children grow into their teen years, the need to participate in the selection and design of the activities in which they are engaged becomes more and more important. For pre-teens and teens especially, the level of participation in voluntary activities such as after-school programs often correlates to the degree to which they feel those activities are meeting their needs and interests.

Regardless of age, children will come into a technology-enhanced learning program with their own ideas about what they want to do with computers and the Internet. With younger children, this might be articulated as simply as, "I want to play with the computer" or "I want to play games." Older children and teens will often have very specific ideas about what they want to do or learn. Children will also often have specific ideas about what kinds of broader youth activities are of interest to them. Field trips, opportunities to make money (teens), and having free time to do activities of their own choice — otherwise known as "playing" — may be among the options for which they express a preference.

Adults can elicit this information in a number of ways: written questions, suggestion cards, brainstorming sessions, and with teens, most importantly, open discussions. Adults should not be afraid to explain that although it is important to hear everyone's ideas and opinions, all those ideas may not be able to become part of the program activities in the present or future. It is the responsibility of adult leaders and caretakers to establish ground rules, guidelines, and priorities.

Some organizations have found interesting solutions that create a balance between the expressed preferences and interests of youth and the priorities and goals of the adults who lead the programs. Supervised free time is set up on weekends, to ensure that after-school program time is saved for structured learning activities. Pre-teens and teens are given significant amounts of responsibility in serving as lab technicians or teaching assistants in exchange for community service or internship credit at school, hourly wages or stipends, opportunities to participate in adult-level training, and/or free use of equipment at designated times.

Step 5) Form a Planning Team

Two heads are better than one. Rather than having one poor soul shoulder the burden of planning out a program on his or her own, many groups have formed planning committees or planning teams. The team shares the responsibility for designing and carrying out the planning for a physical center and the technology-enhanced learning programs.

A planning team should have a diverse representation of skills, be small enough to allow for open discussion and avoid bureaucracy, and include a diversity of stakeholders. In addition to the obvious leadership — the paid staff who will be responsible for managing the technology learning — your organization might consider recruiting the following to serve on the planning team: a committed parent, volunteer, youth participant, staff person who will not work directly in the learning center, and perhaps even a board member.

Step 6) Set Target Goals and Outcomes

It can be difficult for an organization to determine the precise goals and outcomes it wants to achieve through the creation of a technology-enhanced learning program for children. Program leaders may be intimidated at the thought of setting targets that might not be achieved. But it is critically important to undertake this part of the planning process. Establishing clearly articulated goals and outcomes, and revisiting them periodically, will help keep staff and leaders focused and will help parents, youth, funders, and other program stakeholders understand why certain decisions are being made in the development of a program.

"Goals" are usually measurable, and they are directly related to program activities. "Outcomes" are usually associated with the effects of a program rather than its direct activities. Outcomes ultimately become what people perceive to be the results of the program. Example of a goal: serve at least 100 children a week for at least five hours per week. Example of an outcome: increase number of youth prepared for, and interested in, pursuing higher education.

Step 7) Make a Timeline

A timeline is a list, table, or chart that estimates the target dates for completing certain activities or phases of activity ‚ i.e. "finalize staff hiring" or "finish installation of new software." It is important to sketch this out because until due date estimations are actually written down, unreasonable or uncomfortably tight deadlines may be set in motion.

Step 8) Create an Action Plan

An action plan identifies and prioritizes the things that need to be done to run a program, assigns specific people to carry out those items, and sets a due date for completion. It is recommended that an action plan not exceed 90 days in scope, and that it be reviewed and updated on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis to track progress. See YouthLearn's sample action plan for an example.

Step 9) Create a Program Description

Picture a potential funder, the parent of a youth participant, or a potential volunteer walking into your learning center or logging on to your organization's website. What written information will be available to help them understand what your program is doing and where it is headed?

A program description should provide more information than is typically found in a written brochure or delivered verbally in a program tour. To accomplish this, it has to be at least a couple of pages in length. A detailed program description will also strengthen your efforts to communicate the fundamental aspects of the program to staff and volunteers who need to know the "official" facts and figures about technology use and learning in your program.

Step 10) Make a Wish List

After you have carefully planned within the reality of your current budget and staff capacity, take some time to imagine what you would ideally want your learning program to be if money were no object and you had access to the best and brightest staff and volunteers in the world. That vision should shape some parts of your future planning. When a potential funder asks where you want to take the program, and what you think you need to get there, you'll have answers.