Opinion Articles

Rethinking NGO Program Design: A First Principles Approach

By Ali Al Mokdad

The challenges we face today are more complex than ever, with resources decreasing and operational setups constantly challenging NGO intervention methods. These demanding conditions and challenges require innovative approaches that break free from traditional methods and focus on resource optimization, community needs, and impact. This is where First Principles Thinking comes in a mindset that can truly revolutionize the way NGOs develop their programs and interventions.

Think about the last program you designed. It likely involved a lot of passionate discussions,
, and meticulous planning to allocate resources effectively. You balanced donor
expectations, organizational strategies, logistical constraints, and your team’s field expertise to
create a program that aims to meet the needs of the community. But did you ever feel like
something was missing in the design or did you notice that the program is not achieving the
intended impact? That missing piece is often an approach grounded in fundamental principles.
Too often, NGO programs are built on assumptions, traditions, or classic methods rather than
hard evidence and foundational truths. In this article, I will explain how integrating First
Principles Thinking into your program design can dismantle these assumptions, ensuring that
every decision is rooted in reality and tailored to the specific needs of the communities you

The Essence of First Principles Thinking First Principles

Thinking involves stripping away layers of assumptions and received wisdom to get back to the basics. It’s about understanding the fundamental truths of a situation before building up a solution from the ground. This method encourages thinking like a scientist: asking questions such as, “What are we absolutely sure is true?” and “What has been proven?” By focusing on these fundamental principles, we can develop innovative solutions that are more effective and sustainable.

Transforming Program Design with First Principles

In the complex landscape of NGO operations, First Principles Thinking ensures that program
designs are tailored to meet specific needs and contexts with focus on the impact of
interventions. This approach moves NGOs away from “copy-pasting” past projects and towards
addressing root causes of issues. By adopting this mindset, program designers can create
interventions that are adaptable, impactful, and sustainable, closely aligned with the unique
challenges faced by different communities. For example, imagine an organization designing a livelihood program in a rural area.

Employing First Principles Thinking means dissecting the issue to its core by investigating the underlying reasons for unemployment and economic instability, analyzing data specific to the community’s conditions, and collating all evidence-based information available. Instead of asking, “What kind of vocational training programs have been successful elsewhere?” the NGO should avoid generic solutions and deeper inquiries such as, “What are the specific skills gaps in this community?” This involves understanding what industries or services are underdeveloped locally, what skills are in demand, and where the community members have shown interest or potential.

Additionally, the NGO should question, “What local resources and opportunities can be leveraged to create sustainable livelihoods?” This means identifying and utilizing local assets such as natural resources, existing businesses, or cultural practices. For instance, if a community has a tradition of craftsmanship, the program could focus on enhancing these skills with modern techniques and creating market linkages.

The NGO should also consider, “What barriers do community members face in accessing existing opportunities?” This includes looking at transportation issues, financial constraints, social norms, or lack of infrastructure. Understanding these barriers helps in designing interventions that are not only practical but also accessible and inclusive. By asking such fundamental questions, NGOs can avoid the pitfalls of applying one-size-fits-all solutions and instead develop programs that are deeply rooted in the specific, data-driven realities of the community’s circumstances. This strategic approach ensures that interventions are relevant, effective, and sustainable, ultimately leading to meaningful improvements in the livelihoods of the people they aim to help.

Steps to Embed First Principles in Your Approach

To effectively incorporate First Principles Thinking into NGO program design, organizations must foster a culture of curiosity and critical inquiry. This approach requires a deliberate shift from traditional methods to a mindset that challenges the status quo and seeks deeper understanding of the issues at hand which you could do through:

  1. Examine and Challenge Assumptions: Scrutinize existing assumptions about the
    problem. Replace these assumptions with evidence-based analysis. By grounding the
    program in facts rather than preconceived notions, NGOs can ensure a more accurate and
    effective response to the issues they aim to address. Stop “copy- pasting” and start with
    the data.
  2. Identify Core Elements: Deconstruct the problem to its core elements. Understand what
    is absolutely essential and required to address the issue effectively. This step involves
    stripping away complexity to reveal basic truths and requirements crucial for developing
    a solid foundation for the program. Ask questions “ why and how” are a key.
  3. Engage in Deep Discussions: Focus on fundamental aspects of the program. Analyze the
    precise nature of the problem, understand the real needs and challenges of the target
    community, and evaluate the shortcomings of past solutions. By examining these core
    elements, NGOs can develop innovative approaches tailored to the specific context of the
    Incorporating this methodology encourages a shift in mindset, dismantling preconceived notions
    and paving the way for more diverse and groundbreaking solutions.

The Role of the MEAL Team

The Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL) team plays a crucial role in
this process, as it is vital to critically assess program ideas and the framework of the intervention.
Their involvement ensures that questioning and verification become integral parts of the program
lifecycle, promoting transparency and continuous improvement. Program managers, too, should
use this lens in designing their projects or activities. Even if not applied to the overall project
design, it should influence the design of specific activities, the tools used, or even the roles and
positions needed to enact the intervention.

Overcoming Implementation Hurdles

Embracing First Principles Thinking signifies a marked change in how problems and solutions
are approached, requiring a new mindset from everyone in the organization, from the top down.
This is not just a minor adjustment but a fundamental shift in organizational culture. Patience
becomes critical here, as methodical deconstruction of problems and rigorous questioning of
every assumption inherently slow down the usual pace of decision-making. This isn’t about
speed; it’s about depth and clarity.

Moreover, educating and guiding staff to adopt this new approach can be daunting. People
naturally resist change, especially when it pulls them out of their comfort zones and challenges
long-held practices. Beyond the resistance, there’s the practical aspect of training equipping
teams with the tools and understanding to think in this new, foundational way.
Adding to these challenges is the inherent uncertainty that comes with First Principles Thinking.
Without the usual rules and guidelines, there’s a risk of feeling lost or adrift. This lack of
structure can be particularly challenging for teams used to operating within well-defined
parameters. Plus, this approach can initially seem counterproductive, as it tends to raise more
questions than it answers, potentially leading to frustration among team members who crave
quick results and clear directions.

Navigating these challenges requires thoughtful leadership and a commitment to open,
continuous communication. It’s about fostering an environment where questioning and deep
thinking are valued over quick fixes and where patience in problem-solving is seen as an asset,
not a hindrance. This is a journey one that demands resilience, openness, and a willingness to
learn and adapt at every step.

Moving Towards Thoughtful Solutions

Introducing First Principles Thinking to NGO program design is more than changing tactics; it’s
about evolving our entire approach to address global challenges. This method compels us to
question long-held beliefs and delve into the real reasons behind the problems we’re tackling. In
turn, this can lead to solutions that are not only more effective but also more sustainable and
better tailored to the communities we aim to support.

I urge all NGOs to start this transformative journey. Create an environment that values curiosity,
reexamine the premises of your existing programs, and embrace a commitment to constant
learning and adaptation. Ask yourselves, “What fundamental issue are we not seeing?” By
embracing this shift, your organization has the potential to stand out as a leader in innovation and
effectiveness in the field of international development and humanitarian aid. Let’s not settle for
what’s always been done. Let’s strive for what can be achieved when we think and act based on
fundamental truths.

Ali Al Mokdad, a senior manager and humanitarian programs specialist, excels in delivering innovative programs in complex global contexts. He is recognized for strategic leadership, effective risk management, and enhancing organizational transparency. His expertise in governance, compliance, and crisis management ensures efficient humanitarian response and sustainable aid delivery

Related Articles

Back to top button