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Sustaining What Exactly?

It was 2015 and I was about to co-present at an Annual GPA conference when I noticed the room kept filling with people…and more people, to the point that we were at standing room only and full capacity! Clearly, our presentation on the “sustainability question”, as posed in almost every grant application, had hit a nerve with my fellow grant professionals. Since then, my clients and I continually address the question posed by funders: “What will you do when the grant funding runs out?” However, before we can address this, we first must answer an even more pressing question: What exactly are we sustaining?

Conversely, what are we NOT sustaining? For example, we know grants are not sustainable. Grant funding typically runs out within 12 months or less, and very few funders offer multi-year grants. Grants alone, while an important source of revenue, will not sustain the program or organization.

I recently moderated a Meet the Funders panel discussion hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, at which three major area funders discussed their priorities and answered questions. When “sustainability” was brought up, groans – very audible groans! – echoed throughout the room. Even the foundation executives admitted they don't like (or understand) this question. To quote one: “We know your program isn't sustainable, or you wouldn't be asking us for money.”

From this and many discussions with funders, it seems what most are looking to sustain is actually the impact of your program/project/initiative on the community you serve (beyond the limits of the grant period). This does not necessarily mean the program will continue intact, but rather that the positive outcomes from that program can continue into the future.

But how do program outcomes continue if the program is cut short, loses funding, or is reduced in scope? A 2010 report, Sustaining Improved Outcomes: A Toolkit, by Scott Thomas, Ph.D. and Deborah Zahn, MPH, describes 12 specific factors that focus on sustaining outcomes rather than organizations and programs. While there is always some level of funding needed to sustain organizations and programs, more funding is not necessarily required for supporting improved outcomes. The report states that we achieve our goals when the strongest components of any program become institutionalized as a standard part of doing business.

Here are just two of the 12 factors described in the Toolkit that you may find useful in your next grant application:
  1. Staff. “Staff have the skills, confidence, and interest in continuing new ways of working and improved outcomes” (Thomas and Zahn). An example of a sustainable outcome is that staff utilize a new curriculum that is more effective at achieving results x, y, and z. Another example is the use of a train-the-trainer model to address high turnover rates at the organization. This model ensures program fidelity over time. The organization can use the grant for staff training, addressing sustainability through the long-term impact of new ways of doing things that lead to improved outcomes.
  2. Partners. “Involvement of partners who actively support new ways of working and improved outcomes” (Thomas and Zahn). Partnerships, if they can help achieve improved outcomes, are an important part of a sustainability plan. For example, the sustainability plan may include a Memorandum of Understanding that details the commitment of project partners to continue a particular process, such as safe and high quality youth mentoring. In my home community of Rochester NY, major hospitals partnered to share expensive diagnostic equipment and medical services, primarily to save on direct costs (and the indirect costs of fundraising) but also to benefit patients and the community.

What are some ways that you have addressed the “sustainability question”?
Margit Brazda Poirier, GPC, M.S. is Owner and CEO of Grants4Good LLC, a grant development consulting company that specializes in training and grant strategies.
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