We often hear the word “sustainability” used in its environmental context, referring to efforts to prevent the loss or depletion of resources. In the nonprofit sector, the term is used to describe an organization’s ability to maintain its operations over the long term. Ellen Karsh–former director of the New York City Office of Grants Administration and co-author of The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need–defines sustainability as a set of “plans for keeping programs and organizations up and running once the grant period is over.”
Sustainability planning is important for nonprofits because it prepares the program or project for success beyond the phases being funded. Many grant applications ask you to describe your sustainability plan; funders want assurance you will be able to continue your work after their support expires. Here are five key elements of an effective sustainability plan to give your grant proposal a competitive edge while also equipping your program or project for long-term success.
For your initiative to be truly viable even after the grant period has ended, you need to be clear about where you are and where you want to go. What is your vision for the project after three years, five years, and 10 years? What is your goal for how the program will improve the lives of the people you serve over those same time intervals? In addition to showing numbers—people served, size of budget, amount of resources used, number of personnel required to carry out the plan, etc.—also show a long-term vision. Clarifying and articulating a long-term vision for your initiative will then guide your sustainability efforts.
Planning to maintain your program or project far into the future should be a part of your efforts from the start; otherwise you could be left scrambling to find funding after the initial grant period ends. Take sustainability into account as you develop your program, for example, by seeking additional support as an early and ongoing project activity. In your grant application, show funders that you aren’t treating sustainability as an afterthought. Describe specific steps you will take in the first three to six months of the program to assure its long-term survival.
In a previous blog post we discussed the importance of program evaluation in order to measure your initiative’s success and to identify future improvements. Part of sustainability planning involves determining how you will document the results of that evaluation and share them with the public. Creating a comprehensive plan can take a tremendous amount of effort, yet it is still worth the work. This plan could include simple items such as an article in a donor newsletter or a press release to the media. It could also include more substantial measures, such as sliding scale user fees to help support programs once their value has been demonstrated. To make a true comprehensive plan there should be wide-reaching outreach efforts to share your results and further goals. Communicating your results is key for building community support, which in turn increases the likelihood of long-term sustainability.
For an initiative to be sustainable, it needs to have a strong foundation of committed supporters. One way to build that foundation is to invite key stakeholders to become actively involved in the project.
This might mean establishing a workgroup or advisory board to provide input on the project’s maintenance and growth. You could also invite key decision-makers in the community to visit the program firsthand to witness its progress. Your sustainability plan should clearly outline how you are going to reach out and involve key stakeholders.
In your sustainability plan, describe the types and sources of funding you are going to pursue to maintain your project beyond the initial grant period. Be as specific as possible in your descriptions. Will you be seeking other grant support, and if so, which funders are you going to approach? Will you be hosting a special fundraising event? Will you charge program fees? Will some elements of the program generate revenue? Will stakeholders provide financial support? Other types of support? Your plan should give funders a clear sense of the steps you will take during the grant period to make your program financially sustainable.
If you need help designing the sustainability section of a grant proposal, or with any other part of the grant or sustainability process, TheGrantHelpers.com are here to assist you. Please don’t hesitate to contact us, and one of our grant experts will be in touch.