Designing an effective extension program

We need an extension program! For those of us working as enablers of change, this can be something we hear when our colleagues are designing a new project. In the past, we might have been asked to add this in once the R&D project components had been developed. But hopefully these days we would be contributing this at the beginning of the process, and ideally co-designing it with end-users and other key stakeholders. But how do we actually design an extension program? What do we need to include? 

In this post we are going to look at the eight key elements of designing an extension program. We are drawing on several existing pieces of work which, as always, we will add at the end of the blog post. We are utilising material from Jenny Crisp in Western Australia, Claude Bennett and Kaye Rockwell (of Bennett’s Hierarchy fame) from the US, and a book called Improving agricultural extension. A reference manual commissioned by the FAO and edited by Burt Swanson, Robert Bentz and Andrew Sofranko. There are also a few other useful resources and we have listed those as well at the end of the blog post, just in case you are keen to explore further!

The first step for extension program design is of course to start with the why. This is about identifying the purpose of the program, asking what we are trying to achieve. Once we can answer that question then we know what the outcome will look like, and can then move on to look at the how and what. Simon Sinek has done a great TED Talk about this and it is worth a watch!

The second step is to identify the target audience. Be specific! Who are they? What are their levels of experience and knowledge when it comes to the purpose of the extension program. What are their needs? Who else would we like to participate in addition to the target audience? At this point, it may be that we need to undertake a needs assessment. This is a process of information gathering and situational analysis to determine the needs of the target audience. It is better than assuming that we know this already! This might involve doing a review of relevant research, talking to experts, and of course listening to our target audience! 

What is their current farm knowledge, attitudes and skills, practices, behaviour, economic, social and cultural situation? How do they see the problem we’ve identified? We’ll need to spend some time analysing the information we gather and determine their needs. Now sometimes we don’t have a lot of time or resources to do this needs assessment. The key then is to do as much as we can, given what we have available and to be very clear about any assumptions we might have made. And it is amazing how asking a few questions will reveal new ideas, so never underestimate this!

The third step is to develop objectives for the extension program. These should be outcome based and describe what success looks like. A question Jenny Crisp suggests is, ‘For us to achieve the extension program’s purpose, what would need to be in place for that to happen’? Be specific about the changes in awareness, knowledge, skills and/or motivation we would like our target audience to demonstrate by the end of the program. Be specific about changes in practices we might want to see occur. And always go back to the purpose of the extension program and ask will these objectives achieve our purpose. We could use a theory of change or program logic approach to help develop this. (We are planning some future posts on these.)

The fourth step is idea generation. This is where we start listing all the possible activities required to achieve our objectives. This is the fun part that most extension people love doing! Are we going to run workshops, field days, and perhaps an awareness raising campaign? Will we include peer-to-peer learning? We’ll of course need to make sure that the activities follow adult learning principles. We need to include a hook for the target audience to realise they need to get involved, and we should use a range of activities. Another suggestion Jenny makes is to use the action learning cycle: plan, act, reflect, adapt/change and start again. 

The fifth step is to refine these ideas so that we are putting details into each activity, outlining who is involved, where and when activities will take place. It is good to thoroughly think these through and determine which ones will give us the greatest impact. This is also when we might use the ADOPT model, where once we have answered 22 questions, the clever software provides a prediction of not only the diffusion curve for the innovation, but also sensitivity analyses of the factors influencing the speed and peak level of adoption. We can then go back and tweak our approaches to further increase the speed and peak level of adoption. This is a great team activity, as it helps us all to better understand the factors affecting adoption. 

We can then move onto step six, which is pre-activity tasks, the even more detailed planning required for each activity. We will need to think about promotion, booking the people we would like to present at the events, booking venues and catering, and doing a run sheet! Finally, do not forget to do a checklist, so we don’t forget those last minute things.

Step seven covers the post-activity tasks. As good extension practitioners, we need to ensure that we set some follow-up activities to help embed the learning. We sometimes forget that 40% of our effort needs to go into these post-event activities (this is covered in a previous episode). This links into our evaluation planning which is the next step. It’s so important and often we can lose momentum by forgetting that this step is critical in designing effective extension programs!

The last step, number eight, is to design the evaluation. This is about checking during the project whether or not we’re achieving our outcomes and at the end of the program being able to demonstrate that we have achieved at least some of what we said we would. Evaluation is much easier when we’re clear about the purpose and have specific objectives. As we covered in an earlier episode, Bennett’s Hierarchy is a common tool for evaluation planning, and can be used for program design for this reason. We have included a reference to an article by Rockwell and Bennett which goes into some detail on how to do this.

If you have come this far and you’ve been documenting all of the steps we have outlined, then congratulations, you have designed an extension program! And it is documented with an evaluation plan, so we can tell people about what we are doing and how well it went. It is actually a reasonably straightforward process. It’s just that too often we jump straight to planning the activities (because they’re the fun bits), rather than focusing on designing it properly and writing it all down!

Well, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below this post and tell us about your experiences with planning extension programs. We would love to hear about your tips and any useful resources. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!


Crisp, J. 2010, ‘Planning extension activities for impact’, Extension Farming Systems Journal, 6(1), 135-138. Available online

Crisp, J. & Holt, C. 2002, Framework for planning an extension activity: matching process to purpose, Unpublished monograph, Department of Agriculture, South Perth, WA. Available online

Crisp, J. & Holt, C. 2011, ‘Extension planning’, in Shaping change: Natural resource management, agriculture and the role of extension, Jennings J, Packham R & Woodside D (eds), Australasia-Pacific Extension Network, Australia, pp. 123-129. You can order this book from APEN here

Rockwell, K., & Bennett, C. (2004). Targeting outcomes of programs: A hierarchy for targeting outcomes and evaluating their achievement. Available online

Cristóvão, A., Koehnen, T. & Portela, J. 2005. Chapter 7 – Developing and delivering extension programmes. In “Improving agricultural extension. A reference manual.” Ed. Swanson, Burton. You can access it online here or download it as a pdf here


Other useful resources

White, T., Percy, H. & Small, B. nd. Doing + evaluating + stakeholder management = The AgResearch activity plan. Available online.   

The website, Approaching Behaviour Change: the ABC’s of Extension in NZ . It’s based on research to identify successful extension approaches in New Zealand and internationally, looking at agriculture as well as other industries. There were nine extension approaches that were worth exploring. You can read more about these nine extension approaches and a range of recommended extension activities on the website.

5 1 vote
Article rating
Notify of
newest most voted
Inline feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Wakelin
Richard Wakelin
2 days ago

Hi Guys, another jewel of a “presentation”. Some very good principles here and quality source materials. An observation I have is that often there is a lack of research/understanding of the audience and their expectations. There is frequently urgency in getting a message delivered without understanding how it is going to be received or understood. Nice session, thank you.

Graham Harris
Graham Harris
2 days ago

Great summary presentation of the steps to follow in designing an extension program. Keep up the good work. As Richard points out often there is not enough thought given to the underlying issue faced by the end-users in designing not only the extension program but also the research program as well.