Program Sustainability Is Not Rocket Science
I’ve always found it curious that while many organizations diligently develop a strategic plan, few take the time to craft a sustainability plan. By “sustainability” I don’t mean the environmental kind, but rather a plan for sustaining your programs and services over the long-term. A sustainability plan is a proactive response to the dilemma of what to do if you lose a major funding stream. And let me tell you, at some point, most, if not all, nonprofits will lose a major funding stream. While we all want our programs and services to thrive, they often simply survive from year to year.
Promoters of Program Sustainability
What promotes program sustainability is a hot topic for many researchers in the fields of health and human services and for good reason. Ending a successful program or service because of funding insecurities, only to start it up again several months or years later, is not only inefficient, it’s wasteful of public resources and can have negative effects on areas like staff morale or public credibility.
When I first began exploring program sustainability, I found the research findings both shocking and pleasantly surprising. I was slightly shocked because the organizational factors associated with greater program sustainability are not rocket science. To my surprise, they were more like standard best practices for operating a nonprofit, such as diversified funding, program champions, evaluation and performance measurement, and collaborative partners. But there are other important promoters of sustainability that you might not immediately think of, such as strong community support, a volunteer base, in-kind resources, high visibility and local values and culture. Although researchers are still learning about the conditions under which new program innovations are sustained, there’s a lot that we can achieve with what we understand now.
A Sustainability Plan
Unfortunately, most nonprofits aren’t aware of these factors or if they are, they don’t think of them collectively under the umbrella of sustainability. Which is why having a formal sustainability plan is so important. An effective sustainability plan is one developed by a group of program stakeholders and includes multiple strategies that directly address the factors above and becomes a part of your overall strategic plan. Here’s some good news: Unlike many strategic plans, the bulk of a sustainability plan can be written in a day or less. Even better is knowing that once you’ve articulated a plan, you’ll have something concrete to answer that all too common question on grant application forms, “What are your plans for sustaining this project if you are successful?”
Do It Now
An ideal sustainability plan is one that you develop at the beginning of your program, but if your program is already out of the gate, it’s never too late to draft one. Just don’t leave it until three months before a major grant is slated to end. Building capacity to sustain your program will take time and effort, so the sooner you start, the better.
Armed with a greater knowledge of what promotes program sustainability and a sustainability plan, you can proactively take charge of the sustainability of your organization’s programs so they not only survive, but thrive.
Kylie Hutchinson is principal consultant with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation and the author of “Survive and Thrive: Three Steps to Securing Your Program’s Sustainability,” which has been nominated for the Terry McAdam Nonprofit Book Award.