older adults are leading change


Clarify Purpose

Start making choices, and clarify what you want to do so you can create a plan. A clear, important objective helps build shared understanding of the purpose of the work and ensures commitment.

During this first part of the strategy phase you will articulate what it is you want to accomplish. Use assessment findings and advice from key advisors collaboratively, to generate ideas, explore and refine options, and determine what you still need to know. Draw on the talents and contributions of older adults. A process that is inclusive and transparent will facilitate development of a design that is uniquely tailored to your community’s older adults and situational context.

As you continue to learn and refine, you will select an issue and define the scope of the project, in terms of population group or geographic area. Additional elements will also need clarification as the plan moves forward. These include implementing partners, measurable goals, and programmatic activities. Refinement of these elements need not happen in any particular order, and should be determined as makes sense in each unique situation and according to what has already been decided. (For example, the community need or target population may be predetermined for some projects.) Each decision affects and informs others, so the path will likely circulate among the elements as you revisit and revise prior decisions along the way.

Regardless of your starting point or the sequence of your path, you will eventually define the following elements:

  • Issue—an important community need that can be addressed with older adults as a key resource. Something that is justified by your assessment findings, that resonates with older adults, and perhaps has a history of community commitment or concern on which to build a project with achievable and measureable outcomes (e.g., homelessness, literacy, healthcare).
  • Population group or geographic area—e.g., immigrants, young children, homeless; or within specific neighborhoods, towns or regions.
  • Implementing partners—the organizations, programs, agencies, centers, communities, and businesses committed to doing the work.
  • Measurable goals—specific desired change you want to achieve as a result of your efforts.
  • Programmatic activities—the way you will affect change, including the engagement strategy and organizing framework (e.g., community organizing, volunteerism, employment, service coordination, policy advocacy, strategies to mobilize and empower individuals, lifelong learning).

Key operational aspects to address later in the design process are management, sustainability, and evaluation.

Effective Practices

Collaborate with others.

Seek input and be attentive to the process. Consider a range of possibilities to bring people in. Share what you learned in your Assessment and your rationale for future efforts.

Establish a planning group. Who is involved, and how this group is organized will impact what unfolds. Involve community members at the earliest stage of project planning, development, and decision-making. Although you may have done substantial research in an Assessment phase, the Strategy phase is another time when you can use research. Community input can help you refine your project plans and build enthusiasm for the effort. Use community surveys, focus groups, community meetings, and other planning forums to gather information, identify project participants, and involve the broader community. These strategies promote projects that will be more likely to be community driven, attract a higher number of participants, and find deeper community support, increasing the resources and expertise available to the project.

Engage expertise. Specialized knowledge will help to develop realistic plans. Consider what you know and what you need to learn. Form an advisory committee and include significant representation of experienced adults. Research and analyze potential project models. Document community resources, opportunities, challenges, promising practices, and barriers to successful interventions.

Ensure older adult participation. Actively seek participation, extend invitations, and confirm that older adults are helping to shape the work.

Build relationships. Strategic collaboration during planning can lead to implementation partnerships later. Cultivate relationships with partners, advisory group members, and older adult participants. Seek strong commitment to participation. Foster relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

Take time to clarify each institution’s role and responsibilities, as well as ways to most effectively work together. Identify roles based on missions and capacities. Navigating relationships among the many stakeholders (e.g., funders, fiscal sponsors, and strategic and community partners) can be complicated.

Articulate what you plan to accomplish and how.

Develop a process. Establish benchmarks and a timeline. Analyze conditions and problems. Obtain consensus on an issue of focus and develop quantifiable outcomes that would qualify as success. Produce a rationale and case statement, and design a program around the issue. Develop strategy and an action plan; obtain buy-in.

Select an issue. Use your Assessment findings. Research other potential issues that arise, and define the need. An issue may emerge organically out of local interest, previous work, or a related community activity or investment, or might be generated through a group process (community, partner, or advisory) with development of criteria, identification of pressing needs, a narrowed selection, and ultimately one focus issue. Conversely, a target community (population or geographic) might be selected first, which will then lead to an issue of relevance to that particular group. Choose an issue that will resonate with older adults and promote participation, and remember that it need not be connected to aging. (To counter the attention on older adults as beneficiaries, some projects intentionally work on issues that have no inherent connection to aging. The potential here is much bigger than “seniors helping seniors.”) Seek input from people working directly with older adults in your target community and the older adults themselves. Make sure your issue is supported by Assessment results.

Identify the population and geographic focus of the project. Illumination of the issue may naturally lead to the most relevant group or community (e.g., early childhood education/children). Alternatively, the population group or geographic area may be identified first, followed by the issue selection (e.g., a food desert/access to healthy food).

Decide who your partners need to be and engage them. Choose a trusted partner or intermediary that is established within the community of focus and has experience working with older adults. Partners are typically organizations, but can also be older adults and community participants. They must be fully committed to the project and the value placed on older adult engagement. Strong alignment of a partner’s mission and values with the goals and strategy of the project is critical. Weak alignment can result in tension, difficulties and delays. Possible roles for partner organizations include implementing, managing, funding, outreach and recruiting, and providing technical assistance or training.

Define measurable goals. Understand and clarify what you want to achieve, so you can build relevant strategy and bring all stakeholders into alignment, working toward the same goals.

Give shape to programmatic activities. Think of ways to accomplish your goals. Consider a range of innovative ideas and unexpected collaborators. Identify replicable and sustainable program models and engagement strategies that increase opportunities for older adult engagement, volunteerism, employment, and lifelong learning. Create a Theory of Change to articulate conditions and interventions needed to bring about the desired impact. (This will be further developed into a Logic Model and work plan as you design your intervention.)

Clarify the core values that will guide project design. These are the defining principles that will shape your work and communications (e.g., led by older adults, culturally sensitive, asset-based, intergenerational, neighborhood-centered, outcomes-oriented, non-duplicative, diverse).

Keep planning activities flexible, responsive, and tailored to the community’s unique attributes.


Free guides and tools you may find useful include sample theories of change and case statements; community-based planning materials such as meeting curricula, local coordinator handbooks, and handouts for introductory community meetings; Partnering for Sustainable Community Change and other publications that explore techniques for results-focused collaboration; and more.

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