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The Best Laid Plans of Mice & Grant Writers: Or, Not as Sustainable as We Hoped


It is the age-old question: How will your program be sustainable beyond the grant period? We struggle to be both creative and honest, sharing our funding plans, partnerships, board leadership, and other ways to demonstrate that this program will live on forever. However, the reality is that not all programs will last—like great books and a box of chocolates, all good things must come to an end. 

 
Programs sunset for a variety of reasons.
Despite best efforts, the program never took root or scaled up.
A similar program has greater success and recognition, so a merger or closure becomes necessary. 
Rising costs of some parts of the program make sustainability unlikely.
The program's approach was proven ineffective.
The pilot was completed, and program staff determined the intervention was no longer a priority. 
A greater need emerged, demanding more time and resources.  
Alternatively, a happier thought: it was so successful, this effort is no longer needed!

If you are struggling with a project like this, here are a few ideas to bear in mind.

 
1. It is okay to tell a funder your project may not be sustainable. 
 
Honesty is always the best policy: If you know this is a two-year pilot to test a concept or approach, then make it clear that the program may not be around after that if evaluation does not add up. If you are working on ways to improve the program's sustainability (like emerging board leadership or strengthening outreach), then share that information with your funder! Reflecting the current reality of a program, in whatever phase of life, is critical. I would always rather be clear in advance than have to backtrack when a program fails. 
 
2. If a program is coming to a close, communication is essential.
 
Not just with recipients and partners—funders also need to know why you have made this decision and how you are moving forward. If your organization must make this decision in the middle of a grant cycle, determine when the best time to reach out would be. If you can achieve the outcomes and deliverables you proposed, you may be okay to wait until the end of the grant cycle and share the news in your reporting and cultivation. (This always depends on the context of your relationship with the funder and the terms of the grant.) If that is not the case, reach out as quickly as possible and be prepared for a frank conversation—and possibly have to return the funds.
 
3. Learn from the experience. 
 
Like any failure, this is the perfect moment to reflect on how this process can inform your work in the future. As car giant Henry Ford once said: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Knowing your vulnerability is an opportunity to strengthen your organization and, in turn, find future answers to this question! 
 
Have you been through a situation like this? How did you handle it or how could your organization have handled it better?
 
Kat Champigny writes grants for marine research, science education, and community programs at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, ME. 

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