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Tools for Sustainability

 by  Tom Wolff Ph.D.

Download the PDF file for the entire article and printable copies of the tools.
Téléchargez le fichier PDF (en français) pour l'article en entier et des copies imprimables des outils.

Sustainability of programs especially those supported by time-limited funding is a common dilemma. This paper gives a context for a broad understanding of sustainability, describes a sustainability planning process and a four-pronged approach to sustainability that goes beyond finding replacement dollars to include a focus on policy change, institutionalization of programs, and community buy in. Worksheets and tools are provided for these processes.



Many years ago, in the early days of my consulting to non-profits and communities, I encountered the issue of sustainability. It would usually arise when I was invited to help a community or an agency address the sustainability of a specific grant project that had been funded by either a foundation or government. The request almost always was in the last months of a multiple year project, and the group would ask “For the last four years we have had $125,000 per year to do our program. It will end in four months. Can you help us develop a sustainability plan to continue all our work?” In my energetic and naïve youth, I would dive right into the question, only to discover that they really had not thought very broadly about sustainability, nor was there enough time left to achieve the miracle they were looking for. So I began to think more about sustainability. The issue of sustainability of programs brings up many critical issues in community program development: Why are we here in the first place? Have we succeeded? Who cares? Should we continue? And if so – how?

Surely with a recurring issue like this – one that emerges every time project funding runs out for every foundation and government time-limited funded project – there must be some colleagues out there who have written about this topic. How could we have ignored this phenomenon? But it seems that we had. The literature I found was pretty limited, and almost all of it focuses on fund raising to find the financial resources to replace the disappearing funds. As someone who mainly was working in low income local communities, I knew that these poor communities did not have the funds to pick up the cost of even the most successful pilot program that was coming to the end of its external funding cycle. So what were to do? How could I assist communities that requested help around program sustainability, and better still, how could we re-think sustainability so that we could plan for it?

My first question was "What do you mean by sustainability?" Too often the answer is finding replacement dollars for a time-limited grant or funding source that has dried up or is on the brink of drying up. Understanding sustainability on a deeper level can help clarify the vision of the program or collaborative and help it achieve this end state.

In the area of coalition building where I do most of my work, sustainability is a constant headache. No one seems to fund coalitions for the long term. But sustainability was just as often a problem for nonprofit agencies doing innovative programming quite separate from a coalition. The issue of sustainability seemed to pervade the whole system of the delivery of community development and health and human services. It is especially crucial in areas of developing innovative solutions to community problems. In this process I soon discovered a series of myths about sustainability that are best dispelled at the start.

Myth One: Everything we do must be sustained.

It is rare to find a project that has evaluated and honed its efforts so well that every part of its program is known to be effectively helping the program reach its goal. In most programs, we become attached to all of our staff, all our sub-contracts, our overhead percentages and our programmatic efforts. However if we ask the question, "What efforts, staffing, funding, etc. must be maintained to guarantee the same impact?", we may come up with different answers. Of course, the key premise here is that we have some form of evaluative data to help us sort out what has been working and what has not. Once we decide that everything does NOT have to be sustained, we then need a process of evaluating and sifting.

Myth Two: The solution is to find an equal amount of replacement funding.

The exciting part of the sustainability process is exploring ways of sustaining the effort other than or in addition to finding replacement dollars. We can ask "Who else in the community might step in to adopt and institutionalize some of our programs?" We can ask "How can we change community norms, capacity and buy-in so that the community can be the long-term carriers of the solution?" We can wonder about the long-term impact of policy changes as a strategy for sustaining the changes we wish to see in the community.

Myth Three: Sustainability is best thought about in the waning months of your funding.

Clearly we urge all community programs and collaborations to think about sustainability throughout their development. Planning for sustainability is a fascinating process when it is tied to visioning and strategic planning processes. It allows us to imagine how others can not only support our efforts but also be the long-term carriers of the solutions. It may mean thinking of ourselves as catalysts as opposed to program deliverers.

Myth Four: Communities have the money to fund and sustain all pilot projects that show themselves to be effective and of value to the community.

The basic concept of sustainability of pilot projects seems deeply flawed from an economic viewpoint. Pilot projects are initiated by institutions with ample resources – foundations, or federal or state government. These large institutions give money to local institutions with the assumption that if successful, these pilot programs will be sustained by local funding.

Programmatically this makes sense – if the program has shown its worth to the local community that community should be invested in its survival. But economically it does not add up. Pilot programs often occur in low income, disadvantaged communities. Where in these communities are there funds to pick up the cost of successful pilot projects?

In order to make progress with sustainability, we must ask these core questions:

  • What are we trying to sustain and why?
  • What is a variety of approaches to sustaining our efforts that include but go beyond finding replacement funds?
  • How do we develop a sustainability planning process?

The sustainability planning process below attempts to bring some order to our thinking about sustainability and suggests a planning process for sustainability that is not unlike other strategic planning processes that non-profits often use.


Tom Wolff Ph.D. Tom Wolff Ph.D.

Tom Wolff, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized consultant on coalition building and community development, with over 30 years’ experience training and consulting with individuals, organizations and communities across North America. His clients include federal, state and local government agencies, foundations, hospitals, non-profit organizations, professional associations, and grassroots groups. More information about Dr Wolff and his work can be found at http://www.tomwolff.com/.


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