Program Sustainability: How to See the Future

Posted by on


Nothing is scarier than the phrase "Program Sustainability" in a request for proposal (RFP). But many applications require you to describe how you plan to maintain the project after the grant funding period ends.

In other words, the funder wants to know how you'll pay for the program when  their funding expires. 

In some cases, it's simple and straightforward.

"Your grant money will allow us to buy materials for a healing labyrinth garden. Our volunteers will install and maintain it." 

Other situations aren't as easy to forecast.

"Your grant money will fund the salaries of two FTEs to run our after-school tutoring program. If this grant isn't renewed, we have no way to pay the salaries. We'll just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best." 

That's not the answer the funder wants to hear, nor the one you should give.

To avoid giving an answer like this, create your sustainability plan before ever applying for a grant.

Steps for planning for the future

In a perfect world, sustainability planning is incorporated into the project from day one. A strategic plan is key to solving this puzzle. You need to know where you are today and what your organization is going to be doing three years from now. Only then should you begin to consider where you should look for immediate or future funding to support your programming.

The project design process

As part of the strategic planning process, you will evaluate the types of projects you intend to implement. Once you have determined which projects best support your mission, you begin designing a rough draft of each.

Sustainability should become a focus during the project design process. Some project designs are inherently sustainable, particularly projects that focus on systemic change (i.e. professional development, training, etc). Other programs, like infrastructure projects, have a very definite set of ongoing maintenance costs that must be weighed against the overall benefit of the program. The most challenging are projects that involve personnel.

Evaluate the project on the front end to determine if there are ways to maximize the benefit of the project while minimizing the long-term costs. For example, instead of hiring all new employees to implement a new program, train a large cross section of your existing workforce to do the work. You'll reduce your administrative cost and have a more versatile staff.

Identifying funding sources

Once a rough draft of the project is in place, identify potential funding source(s). Consider sustainability when doing funding research. A grant with a five-year horizon is preferable to a 24-month grant since it is awarded over a longer timeline. 

But there are things other than the length of a grant to consider when identifying funding sources.

  • Is there a planning grant available and will securing it first improve our chances of being awarded an implementation grant down the road?
  • Are new competitions held bi-annually?
  • Are multiple agencies funding the same types of projects on different cycles? If so, are we eligible to pursue those awards?

This is when having a seasoned funding research specialist becomes priceless. It takes a lot of time, effort and good, old-fashioned research to know:

  • The available funding sources 
  • Funding sources' respective funding cycles
  • The intricate relationships between various funding programs, both within a governmental agency and across multiple agencies.

When you have written your strategic plan, created a program outline, and identified potential funding sources, you're ready to craft your grant application, including the dreaded "Program Sustainability" section.

How to write the sustainability plan section of a grant application

The sustainability section is meant to reassure the funder that the program will carry on if their grant funding is no longer available. This section is where you'll outline your strategy for achieving this and showing your organization is financially healthy.

Most sustainability sections aren't lengthy. Many RFPs only ask for a couple of paragraphs on the topic. Therefore, you'll need to succinctly compile a lot persuasive information. Be sure to focus on these areas, if applicable.

Your nonprofit's financial health. Make sure the funder gets a picture of your organization's financial situation. If you've had some bumps in the road, don't dwell on the negative, but don't omit entirely. Make is clear that your financials are audited annually by a reputable vendor. 

Your annual fundraising efforts. Define your yearly fundraising activities. It's not necessary to break down the funds raised to the exact penny. Just let the funder see you're making efforts to raise money. 

Entrepreneurial endeavors. Outline any money raised through thrift store activities, selling merchandise or another business ventures. If you operate a fee-based service for service recipients, you should include the amount you expect the program to generate. 

Additional grant funding. If you've been awarded other grants to fund the program, list them. You might even include other grants you're pursuing to support the program.

Corporate sponsorships. Ongoing corporate sponsorships are good to include since they prove to the funder you've got established relationships that offer a steady source of funding.

Community funding. Funds from community chests, United Ways, Federated Funds and similar sources should also be identified. 

Partnerships. Identify partnerships with other nonprofits that would help you sustain your programming. Collaboration is a sign that your nonprofit is not afraid to share resources.  

Ongoing evaluation. Mention that your nonprofit will continually evaluate expenses and find ways to reallocate resources to support the program.

Remember, the goal is to establish that your organization is on good financial footing and the grant you're applying for isn't your only source of income.

More grant-writing resources

Grant applications have many sections, each with its own requirements. Learn how to tackle the entire document in our self-paced, online grant-writing course. With 26 hours of instruction, a handy workbook and more freebies, you'll come away the confidence to win federal, state and private foundation grants so your organization can do more, better.  

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published