The great recession and subsequent belt tightening of our funders— from local and federal government to foundations, corporations and individual donors— have created a challenging funding environment for many community based organizations. Yet sustainability, the word de jour of our funders, is inarguably a necessity.
How many times have you applied for funding from a foundation and inevitably, come across the following question on a grant application: “How does your organization plan to sustain its efforts beyond this grant?”
Sustainability Beyond Your Doors
While organizational sustainability is naturally a priority— increasingly, funders and policymakers also want to know how your organization is contributing to the overall sustainability of the system your organization operates within. Despite this upping of the ante, organizational and system sustainability often goes hand-in-hand; similar to bricks and a building—you need one to build the other, but without the vision of the building your bricks would serve no purpose. As a result of growing awareness and knowledge of how organizations function within and contribute to a larger system, there are now some best practices in sustainability planning on a systems level.
Set Your Direction for the Future Together
Including the system in your sustainability planning is about identifying how your organization can contribute to that bigger picture.
Community organizations are often working towards a higher purpose, such as reducing homelessness, and that higher purpose involves sustaining and improving systems of support for a target population, be it children, families, justice-involved juveniles, etc. Systems sustainability planning should include a thoughtful and structured process of meeting with your organization’s key collaborators and developing a road map.
Your systems sustainability roadmap define the direction you will all go together, including such things as:
- Increasing community capacity to serve a target population – is cross-training between organizations needed or is one agency using a screening tool that others might want to adopt as well?
- Identifying other nonprofits, government entities, businesses that should be at the table to ensure that services are not duplicated and that a continuum of services are available to young children and their families.
- Developing strategies to not only recruit those partners, but to meaningfully engage them in the collaborative effort.
- Defining clear roles of all the partners involved in collaborative efforts to improve the system through, for example, memorandums of understanding.
- Soliciting collaborative partners’ input on how to be good stewards of limited resources by asking specific questions, such as:
- Are we working with our partners to develop shared staffing models and/ or shared office space? (Thereby reducing overhead and increasing opportunities to collaborate.)
- Are there opportunities to pursue shared funding? (Opening up the door to additional funding opportunities because we demonstrate a thoughtful multi-partner design for decreasing duplication and meeting gaps in services.)
- Engaging funders as partners to address an unmet need by demonstrating that need through data and testimonials.
- Developing strategies to engage the public, not only increase awareness of the issue, but to secure the commitment of key policymakers who can help uncover new funding resources or shape policy that will benefit the target population.
This plan should also make the case for additional resources by showing decision-makers that early intervention could ultimately result in long term cost savings to your community. Including these elements in an achievable, collaborative action plan will not only benefit the system, but can demonstrate to your funders how your organization contributes to system sustainability.
Resources for Big Picture Sustainability
A Systems Improvement Training and Technical Assistance Project Toolkit (developed by the Washington D.C. based Institute of Technical Leadership) addresses the challenges experienced by innovative collaborative demonstration projects attempting to scale up and become integrated in larger systems of support for families and children. The Toolkit offers strategies and resources to help sustain emerging collaborative efforts so that they can meaningfully impact the larger system.