More and more, funding sources for youth programs, including federal funding and private foundations, require the use of “evidence-based” programs. What that means in actual practice varies greatly. The many different types of evidence-based programs, practices, and policies have a range of supporting evidence, depth of evidence, foci, and training and implementation requirements. For example, if just one study indicates that a specific program might be effective at promoting a select set of outcomes how can you determine if that program will impact the outcomes you intend it to impact with a different population or within a different setting?
This site can help you make sense of the many factors and decision points involved in planning for, selecting, implementing and adapting, monitoring and evaluating, and sustaining an evidence-based program. Throughout this site, the term “evidence-based programs” is broadly construed to include similar terms, such as “evidence-based practices,” “evidence-based treatment,” “evidence-based strategies,” and other “evidence-based approaches.” We also want to acknowledge the continuum of evidence and not de-emphasize the value of practice-based evidence, which starts with innovative and promising strategies already occurring in a given setting.
Clearly identifying what you are hoping to address and analyzing the potential causes and effects are essential before selecting and implementing an evidence-based program. You want to define:
- the problem you are trying to address or the behavior you want to promote,
- potential causes or gaps that might be creating the problem, and
- where you are hoping to intervene.
To do this, it is important for you to consider your needs, assets, and priorities by looking at the current context of your organization and community and the goals that you have. You want to understand whether you are intervening to prevent something from happening, to address an existing problem, to enhance an approach that is working, or to maintain effects. You also want to determine whether you are intervening universally across an organization or community, with smaller groups of people at elevated levels of risk and need, or through individualized interventions for individuals at the highest levels of risk and need.
Looking at data, involving stakeholders, or conducting a needs assessment can be helpful as you identify what you should focus on. Based on data and community need, you can identify the intended outcome(s) of the program (e.g., decreased rates of substance use or instances of violence, improved student outcomes) and develop a clear understanding of your target population. Knowing whom you will work with will allow you to make sure that the program you select and the approach that you use are:
- developmentally appropriate for the age group you are working with,
- address relevant risk and protective factors across multiple levels (community/organizational, family/peer, individual), and
- are culturally and linguistically appropriate.
In addition to defining the problem, it is important for you to understand the capacity, culture, and structure of your organization prior to implementing an evidence-based program. Despite good intentions, many organizations have not identified whether they have the organizational strength to implement, evaluate, and sustain new programming. Further, it may be important to consider the capacity and support of the larger community. Organizations also often fail to consider how new evidence-based programs align with other programs that are currently being implemented, their organizational culture, their staff competencies, their policies, and other organizational initiatives.
Therefore, in determining readiness you may want to consider questions such as these:
- Are our stakeholders and leadership supportive?
- What resources (human, financial, physical) do we have available to implement and sustain the evidence-based program? Can we reallocate resources to support implementation?
- What structures and policies do we have in place to support the implementation of the evidence-based program or will we need to adapt our structure and policies to support the evidence-based program?
- Do we have the staff capacity and expertise to carry out the evidence-based program?
- Are there any potential partners to work with? What is their capacity?
- What potential barriers may exist?
Ultimately whether readiness and capacity exist is a judgment call. In some cases, red flags will indicate that you might need additional preparation and clarification prior to selecting and implementing an evidence-based program. Here are some examples of potential red flags and ways you might address them.
“We just learned that if we implement an evidence-based program, we will get funded.”
Evidence-based programs shouldn’t be implemented solely because of funding. They should be implemented because the programs address the needs of your organization and can be implemented effectively in your organization. In this case, it is important to carefully review the options to make sure that the programs fit well with your needs before pursuing funding.
“Our staff is so good, we can implement any evidence-based program.” or “We are already doing a similar program, so this should be easy.”
It is important that staff have the knowledge and competencies necessary to implement the evidence-based program. Training is an important part of ensuring that evidence-based programs work. Funding and time for training should be allocated in your budget when planning to implement an evidence-based program. While programs may be structured similarly, they will also have their unique components, and implementing an evidence-based program with fidelity (i.e., it is being implemented as it was intended to be implemented when it was developed or validated) is essential to its success.
“We are not ready now, but by the time the funding arrives we will be.”
Although it does take time to receive funding, it also takes time to plan for implementation. It is important to have a clear plan with strong stakeholder buy-in before you begin implementing the program. This plan includes ensuring that you have the structures, procedures, processes, and supports in place to carry out implementation. Having a strong plan and laying the foundation can help minimize later frustrations and issues.
Having a clear sense of your goal and with whom you intend to work helps you select evidence-based programs that meet your needs and priorities. Carefully reviewing your readiness and potential red flags can help you drive planning and identify what you need to do to ensure that you have the capacity and buy-in to implement the program with fidelity and sustainability. If you judge that you do not have the capacity to implement an evidence-based program, it may be necessary to focus on capacity building before trying to select and implement a program.
In this podcast, psychology professor Mark Small presents five threshold questions to reflect upon before embarking on community programming, particularly evidence-based programming. Listen to the podcast. Download the transcript (PDF, 2 pages).