Solving the Riddle of Project Sustainability

Every grant application asks you how you will sustain funding for the proposed project after grant funding has ended. Nearly all funders see their role as launching new ideas, supporting pilot programs, and encouraging system change. For that reason, most funding sources limit their support to three to five years. After that, it is their expectation that other sources of support will be found. That’s why a grant application will ask you to describe your strategy for sustainability.

Do you have one?

Right now, I’m working on a sustainability plan for an innovative program which is two years into a three-year federal grant. This has caused me to think hard about what needs to go into sustainability planning. Here are my thoughts:

Start early: There’s a reason why funding sources ask you to talk about sustainability in the grant application. It’s because that’s when you should be thinking about it! Last minute sustainability planning equals panic; that’s not productive.

Engage good partners: This also should be done early. Bringing in key partners at the beginning insures their input in program design and operation and gives them time to think about their own organization’s role in sustainability. If each key partner can see how the project benefits his/her organization, their contribution to sustainability will be enhanced.

Operate a good program: Self-evident, maybe, but you’d be surprised how many projects have slow start-ups, heavy staff turnover, poor recruitment, and other impediments to showing impressive results. Unless a program has good outcomes that indicate future, even better, success, sustainability is practically impossible.

Determine what’s worth sustaining: Not every program component will make the cut. It’s important to have a critical eye toward the program, think objectively about what’s working well and what isn’t and consider program modifications or even redesign to strengthen winning components.

Develop a compelling case statement: This has two ingredients: 1) an analysis of participant outcomes that demonstrates that people do better in this program than without it; and 2) an analysis of costs associated with the program as compared to business as usual. You want to have a strong answer to potential funders’ question: Is this program better than what we are currently doing?

Find the connectivity: Among your partners, who benefits most from the program? In the broader community, including government, human service systems, foundations, who stands to benefit from the results your program is providing? Finding these connections and weaving them together into a network of interest and support for the project is critical.

Educate: There are many ways to educate and a project focused on sustainability needs to employ them all. Having good program materials, using print and social media, making presentations to conferences and groups of foundations, and seeking opportunities to educate the broader community about the project are all critical sustainability steps. Every member of a collaborative effort should be able to educate others about the project.

Connect the resource dots: Sustainability may be the result of new funding, realignment of existing funding, increased in-kind resources, greater use of volunteers, institution of a fee structure or all of the above and more. What is clear from experience is that one single funding source is unlikely to be the savior for a program; there needs to be a network of support if long-term sustainability is to be achieved.

Project sustainability is a tough question but without careful thought and planning, a great project can evaporate at the end of its initial funding. Time to start planning is now.