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Sustainability Planning Part one: What is sustainability?

This post is the first in a series of blogs on program sustainability and sustainability planning. Stay tuned for the next posts: Sustainability Components of Community Work and Developing a Sustainability Plan.

Lately we’ve been getting service requests from organizations and partnerships who are interested in sustaining their programs beyond the end of their funding period. “Sustainability” is one of those mysterious terms that is used a lot, though we don’t always know what we mean when we say it! I decided that I needed to find out more about what sustainability is and how to plan for it.

There are many different definitions of sustainability. Sustainability can be defined simply as a continuation1: the ability to carry on program services through funding and resource shifts or losses2. In other cases, sustainability can be about institutionalizing services; creating a legacy; upholding existing relationships and maintaining consistent outcomes2. Often we think of sustainability meaning about funding3:  however sustainability planning should focus on community needs, which shift and change over time2.  Sustainability is not a single event or a linear process: like many things in healthy communities and health promotion, sustainability planning is a continuous process that may involve one-step-forward-two-steps-back and multiple components happening at the same time2.

The Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) in the U.S. has several excellent resources on sustainability. In particular, their 2012 Tip Sheet titled Built to Last3 provides an excellent, 5 page primer to sustainability planning. In the tip sheet, the OAH lists four common challenges to sustainability of programs and services:

  • Organizations have difficulty in planning far enough ahead to secure necessary resources
  • There is a lack of well-documented successes to share with the community and funders, despite the quality of the program
  • There is a lack of stakeholder ownership of the program
  • Funding streams are finite and there is competition from similar organizations

Sustainability planning should not be automatic: in other words we should ask ourselves if the program should be sustained rather than simply assume that it should. I've adapted the below questions from the OAH tip sheet and a guidebook of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the U.S.4:

  1. Does your program or service address a need in the community?
  2. Do your evaluation results demonstrate that you are making a difference?
  3. Do you need to sustain the entire program? What parts of the program are the most effective and needed?

What I’m taking away from this wee bit of reading that I’ve done on sustainability, is that we often focus our sustainability efforts on replacing program funding, with the assumption that our programs should continue.  Sustainability is not about replacing expiring funding- though obviously that’s a part of sustainability planning. Rather, sustainability planning should be a fluid, ongoing process that is specifically tailored to local needs and the environment in which the organization operates. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions (as per above) to make sure that our program should continue. Then, we can begin sustainability planning. 

Read the next post in this series, Sustainability Planning Part Two: the Components of Community work.

References

1Heart Health Resource Centre, 1999. @heart: Heart Health Sustainability. Toronto, Ontario

2Office of Adolescent Health, 2014. Building Sustainable Programs: The Framework.

3Office of Adolescent Health, 2012. Build to Last: Planning Programmatic Sustainability.

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