Program Sustainability: How to See the Future

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Nothing is scarier than coming across the phrase "Program Sustainability" in a request for proposal. But these days, most RFPs require applicants to describe a coherent plan for maintaining the project beyond the grant funding period.

The funder is essentially asking you to look a few years into the future and explain how you'll pay for the program after their grant funding expires. In some cases, it's simple and straightforward. "Once we use your money to build sidewalks, our guys in public works will maintain them." 

In other situations, it's as clear as mud. "If we don't get this grant, I don't know where we're going to get the money to fund this program at all, so how am I supposed to know where we're going to find it three years from now?"

In a perfect world*, sustainability planning is incorporated into the project from day one. The first key to solving this puzzle is having a strategic plan in place. 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.

As part of the strategic planning process, you will evaluate the types of projects you intend to implement, assuring that they are aligned to your organization's mission. Once you have determined which projects are necessary to support your mission, you begin designing a rough draft of each.

The project design process is when sustainability should become a focus. 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. Still others, especially those involving a lot of personnel, are decidedly challenging from a sustainability standpoint.

The best approach is to 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 programming strategy, train a large cross section of your existing workforce. 

Once a rough draft of the project is in place, then the work of identifying appropriate funding source(s) begins**. The funding research stage is another area where sustainability planning should be considered. Everyone prefers a five-year grant over a twenty-four month grant. That's a no-brainer.

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?

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: all of the funding sources out there; all of their respective funding cycles; and, all of the intricate relationships between various funding programs, both within an agency and across multiple agencies.

For example, it is almost impossible to learn that the federal Department of Education's relatively small Integration of Schools and Mental Health Systems grant is considered a precursor to the much larger Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant without actually talking to someone at the agency. (Even I can't profess to know all of this, although I admit to knowing more than your average bear.)

Once you have identified an appropriate funding source(s), your strategic plan and program outline will help you craft your grant application, including the dreaded "Program Sustainability" section.

And if you need help, don't hesitate to reach out. We'd love to help you craft a well-designed grant application package do you can do more, better.

* Repeat after me, "the world of grants is never, ever a perfect world."

** If the process described above seems to be in exact reverse order from the way your organization pursues grants, you are Putting the Cart Before the Horse.

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