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Code Red: Do you have a program sustainability plan?

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All hands on deck

Years ago, I volunteered on the board of a large multi-service organization that operated a much-needed early child development program in my community. One day the director of this program received word from their primary funder that they were about to lose a significant portion of their funding, which would essentially force them to close. Knowing that the program provided a critical service to parents in the community, the organization quickly drafted a plan of action to save it. Over a period of several weeks, they mobilized with similarly threatened programs across the province, distributed posters and flyers at parent activities, prepared press releases, arranged meetings with provincial and federal representatives, coordinated a town hall meeting, held a local march, and traveled to a large rally in the provincial capital. It was a dizzying and stressful time for all.

As you can imagine, all this activity took a large amount of staff time and energy away from regular services. Because it was a “code red” situation, the organization was forced to draw on the help of staff from other programs to carry out the immense task facing them. Although they were successful in reinstating their funding, the toll on the organization was significant. Some staff were drawn away from their regular duties for several weeks. The organization also “spent” a good deal of its social capital by calling on the support of its allies, which can’t be done that often. In the end, it was worth it, but it took time before everyone felt back on track.

Preparing for sustainability

The consequences of not preparing for sustainability can be devastating to programs and their organizations. Not only do they risk losing their funding, but also experienced staff looking for a more secure income. When staff walk out the door, they also take with them all the trust and personal relationships they’ve developed with partners and clients, not to mention organizational memory. Even if funding is restored later on, this “two steps forward, one step back” process can end up impacting your ability to achieve your mission over time. If programs are always living hand-to-mouth in pilot mode, they don’t get a chance to work on their long-term goals or realize longer-term outcomes.

Promoters of sustainability

Fortunately, it doesn’t always have to be this way. New research has identified numerous factors associated with greater program sustainability, and the good news is many of these factors are at your disposal. In fact, the promoters of program sustainability read like many best practices for operating a non-profit: diversified funding, program champions, evaluation, community support, and collaborative partners. But there are other promoters that you might not immediately think about, such as a strong volunteer base, in-kind resources, high visibility, local values and culture, and a sustainability plan. Although researchers are still learning about the conditions under which new program innovations are sustained, I’m excited by the potential of what we can achieve with what we currently understand now.

A sustainability plan

I’ve always found it curious that while many organizations diligently develop a strategic plan, few take the time to craft a sustainability plan. A sustainability plan is a series of strategies that build upon these promoters of program sustainability in a coherent and structured way.

The ideal sustainability plan is one that you develop at the beginning of a program, includes multiple strategies, and becomes a part of your organization’s overall strategic plan. But if your program is already out of the gate, it’s never too late to draft one. Just don’t leave it until the last minute when your funding is about to end. Building capacity to sustain your program will take time and effort, so the sooner you start, the better.

Best of all, unlike some planning processes, you can complete a sustainability plan relatively quickly. Most groups can do it in a day or less. Many tell me one of the things they like about having a sustainability plan is the ability to easily answer the question, “What are your plans for sustaining this project?”, on funding application forms.

So, what are you waiting for? With a proactive and concrete sustainability plan in your hands, take charge of your sustainability today and watch your programs 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.

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