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Are You Answering the Sustainability Question Correctly?


Many, if not all, grant applications ask the dreaded “sustainability question.” It comes in a variety of ways and forms. The funder is trying to elicit a specific response. The answer, if given properly, is a powerful tool in a grant professionals' messaging arsenal. 

Funders are interested in long-term community impacts and most want to learn how you'll spend their money wisely. They want to read who the funds will benefit and how you will sustain the proposed outcomes (but, not necessarily your projects/programs). Why? Because, funders are worried you will become dependent on their generosity. Spoiler alert: Grants are temporary!

Are you capable of being independent? In many ways the “sustainability” question is a trick question. It is really a question about the capacity of the organization, and as a grant professional this is an important test of your mettle. The good news is there are many ways to answer the question correctly, and incorrectly. For example, “How will you continue the program after the grant funds end?” If your answer, is “we will get more grants” you failed to answer the question correctly. The funder wants to know whether you realize the grant funds are a one-time gift.

Are you knowledgeable? Having command of the subject matter is critical to grant success. If asked, “Please provide a preliminary sustainability plan for your project. Your plan should include 3-years, 5-years and beyond.” The funder wants to hear about a concrete plan of action. If your answer is, “At the core of our mission we are environmentally friendly! In fact, our organization implemented a community garden and composting program in 2015” or “in the next three-years we plan to buy more goods/products made of recycled materials” you failed to answer the question correctly.

Are you a capable steward of grant dollars? Funders ask the sustainability question because they want to make sure their funds won't be wasted. Sustainability is both an art and the science of self-perpetuation. Long-term implementation may not pay for itself in the traditional return-on-investment model. Crafting “grant art” should be fun and an expression of the grant proposal artist. The continuation of outcomes is “grant science” and a fundamental measure of an organization's capacity to manage grant funds wisely.

Why is your organization in business? Would you still be in “business” if your organization didn't make an impact? This question gets to the heart of why funders ask about resilience and sustainability. The answer correlates the long-term potential impacts. A surprising part of the answer might be “more funding is NOT necessarily required for sustaining improved outcomes.” Your sustainability plan must indicate how your proposed program will seek and engage collaborative partnerships.

Watch our LIVE recorded webinar to learn more! My colleague Margit Brazda Poirier and I presented a 2016 Webinar for GPA called “Learning to Answer the Sustainability Question.” During the webinar we discussed the types of “sustainability questions” posed in grant applications and common pitfalls, how to use the “sustaining outcomes” approach, and the elements of a sustainability plan. 

Need tips and ideas? Follow the link to our webinar. GPA Members can register for free and non-members pay $30 per webinar. Click on the link to register: GPA Webinar - Learning to Answer the Sustainability Question. Learn our tips to answer this dreaded question in your next grant proposal.

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