Answering the Annoying Sustainability Question

We have all had to answer the “sustainability question” one way or another:
  • How will the program be sustained after the grant ends?
  • What is your plan for sustaining the project beyond the grant period?
  • Describe the future of this program and how will you support it beyond the grant.

Others have written about why the question is annoying (“The Sustainability Question: Why it is So Annoying”, NonprofitAF, Vu Le, September 3, 2013). And like others, I have been tempted to tell the grantmaker why (“Standardized Answers to the Sustainability Question”, NonprofitAF, Vu Le, May 11, 2015).
Beyond humor, I take a deep breath, do yoga, or take a walk with my dog as I reflect on the positive difference my organization makes for its clients and in the community and how this will shape my answer.
One annoying thing about the question is that it assumes the program should or will continue. It may not be designed to, and this may be the answer. If the grant is for a pilot program, single training or event, curriculum development, equipment that will last for years, capacity building, to clear a backlog, or respond to a natural disaster, the answer is straightforward.
The most annoying thing about the question is the assumption that a one-year grant should result in other resources coming by year two, or that it will make some permanent difference. I have seen this question asked for grants as little as $1,000. In most cases a one-year grant will not sustain an ongoing program, and future funding will be needed. This is particularly true for social services and education where caseworkers and teachers are an ongoing investment in people's lives.
I focus on:
  • program or organizational improvements that will endure after the grant period;
  • organizational vitality;
  • the prominent role of the organization or program in the community; and/or
  • sustainable outcomes.
Program or organizational improvement: Can you show plans for improvements such as new and improved evaluation tools that will be tested, or new streamlined processes that will save time, for example? Will a new or expanded partnership help you leverage better outcomes for clients?
Organization vitality: Does your organization have increasing resources, and can you link that to your capacity to support the program in the future? Do you have a growing number of donors, members, partners, or volunteers that will help sustain the program? Maybe you are increasing revenue through fee-for-service programs. Perhaps your organization has recently hired, or plans to hire additional development staff  who will increase grant and donation revenue.
Role in the community: How does your organization stand apart? Are you alone in providing services to a growing homeless population in your community? Does the mayor or governor raise you up? Who are your partners and how do they rely on and support your work?
Sustainable outcomes: Barbara Floersch, Executive Director of The Grantsmanship Center, writes in “Sustainability After the Money Runs Out” (The Nonprofit Times, February 17, 2016): “Most people define sustainability as ‘obtaining funding to keep the program running.' That's not quite right. It's primarily about perpetuating the results that are being achieved. Sometimes sustaining outcomes requires that you continue the program or some part of it — but not always.” Do you have a track record of improving outcomes? Perhaps your education program shows gains in student knowledge year over year as measured by student surveys.
Humor, deep breathing, yoga, and walks with my dog clear the way for me to reflect on the positive aspects of my organization to answer the sustainability question.
What do you do with the sustainability question?
Ellen Gugel, GPC, is principal of Grants & More, a grants consulting firm based in Massachusetts since 2008.



By: Linda G. Maddox
On: 08/29/2017 15:15:28
One of my favorite questions. Something I've heard is don't just say "you're seeking funding from other sources," etc. You're supposed to list all pending asks and any donors you plan to submit a proposal to as well. Nothing generic.
By: Nathan Medina
On: 08/29/2017 16:35:06
Nice job Ellen.
By: Kelley Renz
On: 08/30/2017 04:50:43
I emphasize the age of our organization, the expansion of our development department in 2016, and our efforts to diversify. I like the idea of sharing improvements and efforts to increase evaluation. Thank you.

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