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Answering the Sustainability Question

As grant professionals, we have seen many versions of “the sustainability question”—“What is the future of this program and how will you support it beyond the grant period?” or “How will the program be sustained after the grant ends?” The question appears in almost all federal, state, foundation and corporate grant applications. And if it isn't asked, funders still want to know your plans for the future. 

Why is it such a popular question? Funders want to know that their money will be put to good use – that a program's results will generate long-term impact for the community --  beyond the grant period. Those new to the field, as well as veteran grant professionals, often consider this question a stumbling block. The easiest and most common answers tend to focus on leveraging grants to get more grants. But grants aren't sustainable, and most are spent down in 12 months or less.

All too often, this question is interpreted in a way that assumes sustainability means the program will continue intact. However, if funders are interested in long-term community impact, then they are really interested in sustaining outcomes (not necessarily programs).

A 2010 report, Sustaining Improved Outcomes: A Toolkit, by Scott Thomas, PhD and Deborah Zahn, MPH, offers another way to look at the sustainability question. The document describes 12 factors that focus on sustaining outcomes as opposed to programs or organizations. While there is always some level of funding needed to sustain organizations and programs, more funding is NOT necessarily required for sustaining improved outcomes.

Sustainability of outcomes can be defined as new ways of working (and the resulting improved outcomes) that become the norm. Remember Total Quality Management in the early 1990s? Or perhaps Lean Six Sigma and other quality improvement processes in business, government, and nonprofit sectors? All have the goal of improved processes/ways of doing things for better outcomes. And that goal is achieved when the most successful components of any program become part of the overall process of positive change.

Let's look at just two of these 12 factors as described in the Toolkit:
1) Staff as a key factor.“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 outcomes x, y, and z. Another example is the use of a train-the-trainer model to address high turnover rates at organization. This model ensures program fidelity over time. The grant can potentially be used for staff training and the sustainability component is addressed 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, a plan may include a Memorandum of Understanding that details the commitment of project partners to continue a specific process. In my home community of Rochester, New York, major hospitals have partnered to share expensive diagnostic equipment and medical services, primarily to save on costs (and the associated fundraising), but also to benefit patients and the community.

This topic will be addressed in greater depth at the November 11-14, 2015 Annual Grant Professionals Association Conference in St. Louis. Danny Blitch and Margit Brazda Poirier will be presenting, “Learning to Answer the Sustainability Question.” We hope you can join us to look at this question from many different and interesting angles.

Margit Brazda Poirieris the founder and owner of Grants4Good LLC, a grant development consulting company based in Upstate New York.