older adults are leading change


Design Approach


Communities that have successfully create change efforts led by older adults use a range of individualized approaches. Each has used a process tailored for its own unique setting and project, universally affirming the importance of collaborative planning and design.

Establish a cooperative process by inviting participation and bringing stakeholders to the planning table. This is a good time to bring in additional stakeholders, with knowledge and experience specific to your cause. Build interest and commitment by working together to refine ideas and bring focus to the effort. Consider the older adults you seek to engage, and make sure they are shaping the design. Consider different approaches and perspectives, partner capacities, ways to integrate learning opportunities, and how you will resolve key operational aspects of project management, evaluation and sustainability.

Remember that regardless of how you structure your design work, it is important to have clear roles and transparent processes for inviting input, making recommendations, and making decisions.

Effective Practices

Involve Collaborators.

Recruit interested donors and funders to support program development and implementation. If funding partners are not included in the design process, be sure to take a formal look at resources when the approach is articulated. Look for ways to leverage local resources (both cash and in-kind) to support the effort.

Identify implementing partners. Some initiatives might choose implementing partners to participate in the design process, based on existing relationships or prior participation on an advisory committee. Others may craft the design, define outcomes, and issue a request for proposals as the means to select implementing partners. Effective program design and capacity building grants will result in increased partner capacity to mobilize the skills, experience and commitment of older adult participants. The focus on older adults may be new to some partners, while others may already have experience in this area.

Ensure that older adults are leading the design of the work. Carefully manage the design process (without controlling it), and keep everyone involved.

Partner with area organizations to develop and deliver curricula in their areas of expertise to participants through summits and workshops.

Vet the program plan within the community and refine it as needed. Affirm broad-based support for implementation.

Consider essential elements.

Think carefully about how older adults will be part of the project and what they will bring. Your approach must resonate with older adults, match their skills and abilities, and result in clear outcomes. The emphasis is not on “helping” older adults, but on leveraging a community resource to address issues. Focus on the tangible benefits of mobilizing their talents and experience, not on expanding a volunteer pool. Stipends or other financial incentives may be part of the strategy.

Compare management options, including managing the initiative in-house, creating a new 501(c)(3) organization, hiring an existing entity as managing partner, engaging a fiscal sponsor, or utilizing a hybrid approach.

Design for sustainability. Project appeal can be enhanced by an innovative approach and sustainable plan. Create a long-term funding plan, with self-sustaining systems change. Create new, more, and better skill-based opportunities and activities to tap the knowledge and experience of older adults on a continuing basis. Facilitate local ownership of community-based projects, and build organizational and community capacity to engage older adults in the future. Personal impacts on older adult participants may also be durable, especially connections between members, and personal growth realized through the acquisition of new skills and a greater understanding of their own potential, value, and capacity to promote change.

Infuse evaluation logic and thinking into all aspects of the planning process. Think about how you will know if you have succeeded. Include key stakeholders in the process of designing and implementing the evaluation, and be mindful of the burden it places on partners and participants in terms of time, commitment, paperwork, and privacy.

Consider ways older adults will “fit” into existing structures, in terms of organizational readiness, culture, and capacity. Facilitate connections with existing programs; examine assumptions, policies, and practices involving older adults and consider ways to integrate their capabilities throughout the community. Older adults must be viewed as individuals with skills, abilities, and potential, not as clients needing services.

Look at support structures and systems. Most communities and organizations don’t have systems in place to take advantage of older adult resources in meaningful ways. Look for opportunities to enhance or build the infrastructure needed to support engagement plans, including program development, training and technical assistance, new tools, convenings, and connectors to effectively match and link older adults to appropriate, flexible, and meaningful work.

If your plan involves locally driven efforts:

  • Ensure technical support and guidance are provided in organizing, planning, and choosing program focus areas.
  • Initiate community-based meetings and conduct a community planning process that helps build implementation plans.
  • Enable community organizing projects to be conceived, organized, and implemented by residents.
  • Create a learning community of key stakeholders to share information, network, and learn about different topics.

Create your approach.

Develop a strategy with achievable and measurable outcomes that draws on existing community assets and works to strengthen and sustain the community over time. Check that older adult interests and barriers to engagement identified in the Assessment are reflected in your choices. Be sensitive to the community’s culture, norms, and traditions. Strive to balance the need for strong design with the need for flexibility and the benefits of inviting older adults to shape the work as it evolves. Anticipate challenges. Integrate opportunities for learning and leadership development. Plan for sustainability, management, and evaluation. Some projects issue a request for proposals to generate a variety of different approaches, followed by planning and implementation grants.

Develop a Logic Model to chart your course and show relationships among your project’s resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts. This is a fantastic tool to communicate what the program does and how success is defined. The model will inform the work plan, provide operating principles, and help to express desired change as outcomes that are connected to planned activities. Engage partners in the process.

Create a business plan covering the required investment of financial and human resources, as well as an implementation work plan, timeline, and evaluation plan. Confirm and document financial support, organizational commitments, and evaluation protocols.

Create and execute a communications strategy to build awareness, change perceptions, and keep the community informed. Integrate message development, outreach, and key communications activities into all phases of work. Vehicles might include websites, brochures, community events, media coverage in local outlets, reports to the community, site visit receptions, bus tours, town hall meetings, and social media.

Initiate a pilot project, and issue RFPs, if desired.

Finalize the program plan and prepare for implementation.


Free guides and tools you may find useful include sample logic models; due diligence questionnaires for partnering; RFPs and application summaries; evaluation plans; and more.

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