Tools for Creating Data-Driven Program Development

This article will present some strategies for guiding the development of your organization’s programs with reliable data. Regardless of the sector, it is important for organizations to have a deep understanding of their focus population and problem of interest. This understanding ultimately leads to a well-served population by way of a program that addresses their needs. The alternative to this is a potential waste of time and effort implementing program activities that are assumed to be effective. This is why knowing the story that existing data tells regarding the focus population is instrumental to program development. Being informed in this way can spare your organization time and effort backtracking to remedy unforeseen issues with program relevance, effectiveness, and growth.

Review Existing Data

Conducting a literature review is one of the best ways to gain a thorough understanding of a problem and associated population. By thorough, I mean acquainting yourself with the main factors driving the issue of interest (e.g., limited access to health care) you want to address. These factors may be environmental, social, or economic. Ideally, this is done in the initial stages of program planning to direct the development of its components. Consulting peer-reviewed articles can provide information from scholars in your sector on the severity of a problem in addition to which populations it affects, how, and to what extent. Additionally, you will gain information on successful and unsuccessful methods or programs used to address the problem of interest; you will likely come away from your search with curricula and assessment tools like surveys that you can adapt to your program with the permission of the originator. Consulting the literature can guide you in tailoring your program activities and tools to be as culPreview (opens in a new window)turally-relevant as possible as you see what has been done, and what has worked among specific populations. For more practical guidance for program development, search websites that focus on best practices or evidence-based methods and evaluation findings. The Community Toolbox’s Databases of Best Practices is an excellent resource for this kind of information in a more accessible format.

What you may need:

  • Access to a professional(s) who can accurately interpret study results and assist you with incorporating the knowledge into your program activities.

Granted, there is a chance that the literature on a population or issue that you are trying to learn about will be scant; if this is the case, the next tool will be very useful for filling gaps in the overall picture.

Assess Needs

A community needs assessment (CNA) goes beyond a literature review to gather data on a community (or population) and issue of interest to understand needs and take stock of community resources that can be used to address the issue. This requires a greater investment of money, time, and effort, but the return would be worth it: a CNA is yet another way to avoid implementing program activities based on assumption in addition to avoiding reinventing the wheel. The needs assessment would be guided by a purpose statement and use multiple data sources to rank needs by importance, changeability, and feasibility—that is, organizing needs into a prioritization matrix. This process results in the proposal of recommendations on how to address the needs.

A needs assessment would include:

  • Literature review
  • Walking/windshield surveys (i.e., planned observation of a community done on foot or while driving around1
  • Key informant interviews (i.e., those that serve the target population)
  • Surveys of the target population
  • Interviews or focus groups with the target population
  • Prioritization matrix

Going through this process would further acquaint you with the population you desire to serve, and the data gathered will be even more specific to them. Furthermore, such an assessment will involve your focus population early in program development. This puts your program in an excellent position to incorporate their perspectives and increase the relevance of activities to the intended audience.

What you may need:

It is highly recommended to hire professional assessors for this task. Their expertise will go a long way towards being sensitive to community mores and gathering and analyzing data in-depth; this will leave your organization with a strong data to draw from and apply to program development.

Further reading on the purpose and components of needs assessments can be found here. As the authors mention, a needs assessment can be useful at any point during the lifetime of your program, but earlier is better for organizations that have broader goals, such as addressing the educational needs of underserved children in a city, to set an appropriate starting point for the program.2

Apply Evaluation Results and Recommendations

Evaluation is vital to program development. An evaluation report should provide an organization with recommendations based on the data obtained from assessing program activities. These recommendations provide guidance on how a program can be improved. Implementing these recommendations are especially useful because they are proposed with your particular program in mind meaning that the capacity and mission of your organization have been taken into account to form suggestions for improvement.

What you would need:

  • Open, consistent communication with your evaluators. This benefits your organization by allowing for a thorough understanding of recommendations, why they were made, and how to implement them.

Creative Research Solutions has the expertise to guide your organization through the strategies discussed. With reliable data on your side during the initial stages of program development and throughout the life of your program, the odds of developing an effective program will be in your favor.

  1. Community Tool Box. Chapter 3 Section 21. Windshield and Walking Surveys. Community Tool Box Website. Accessed April 2018.
  2. Community Tool Box. Chapter 3 Section 1. Developing a Plan for Assessing Local Needs and Resources. Community Tool Box Website. Accessed April 2018.

About Olivia Halls

Olivia Halls earned her Master’s in Public Health at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and specializes in Behavioral Science and Health Education. She is passionate about promoting health equity and social justice.

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