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How to Answer the “Sustainability Question” in Grant Applications

By Margit Brazda Poirier, GPC, M.S.

Perhaps you have seen this question asked in your grant applications:

What is the future of this program and how will you support it beyond the grant period?

How will the program be sustained after the grant ends?

The “sustainability question” in a grant application is a challenging section to write for many grant professionals and nonprofit staff. The question appears in almost all federal, state, foundation and corporate grant applications. Even when the funder doesn’t ask the question directly, they still want to know your plans for the program when the grant funding runs out.

Why is it such a popular question? Funders want to know that their money will be put to good use—that a program’s results will generate long-term impact for the community—beyond the grant period. The easiest and most common answers tend to focus on leveraging grants to get more grants. However, grant funding typically runs out within 12 months or less, and very few funders offer multi-year grants. Grants alone, while an important source of revenue, will not sustain a program or organization.

To address the sustainability question, we must first ask, “what exactly are we sustaining?” All too often, this question is interpreted in a way that assumes sustainability means the program will continue intact. However, if funders are interested in long-term community impact, then they are interested in sustaining outcomes (not necessarily programs). Funders may also be interested in organizational sustainability, i.e., your organization’s long-term ability to grow, adapt to changing circumstances, and deliver on the mission. Or they may specifically ask about financial or programmatic sustainability. This article focuses on sustaining outcomes, since that is typically the highest priority for any funder.

I recently moderated a “Meet the Funders” panel discussion hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, at which three major area funders discussed their priorities and answered questions posed by nonprofit professionals. When “sustainability” was brought up, groans – very audible groans! – echoed throughout the room. Even the foundation executives admitted they don’t like (or understand) this question. To quote one: “We know your program isn’t sustainable, or you wouldn’t be asking us for money.”

From this and many other discussions with funders, it seems what most are looking to sustain is actually the impact of your program/project/initiative on the community you serve (beyond the limits of the grant period). This does not necessarily mean the program will continue intact, but rather that the positive outcomes from that program can continue into the future.

But how do program outcomes continue if the program is cut short, loses funding, or is reduced in scope? The report, Sustaining Improved Outcomes: A Toolkit, by Scott Thomas, Ph.D. and Deborah Zahn, MPH, describes 12 specific factors that focus on sustaining outcomes rather than organizations and programs. While there is always some level of funding needed to sustain organizations and programs, more funding is not necessarily required for supporting improved outcomes. The report states that we achieve our goals when the strongest components of any program become institutionalized as a standard part of doing business.

Here are just two of the 12 factors described in the Toolkit that you may find useful in your next grant application:

1. Staff. “Staff have the skills, confidence, and interest in continuing new ways of working and improved outcomes” (Thomas and Zahn). An example of a sustainable outcome is that staff utilize a new curriculum that is more effective at achieving results x, y, and z. Another example is the use of a train-the-trainer model to address high turnover rates at the organization. This model ensures program fidelity over time. The organization can use the grant for staff training, addressing sustainability through the long-term impact of new ways of doing things that lead to improved outcomes.

2. Partners. “Involvement of partners who actively support new ways of working and improved outcomes” (Thomas and Zahn). Partnerships, if they can help achieve improved outcomes, are an important part of a sustainability plan. For example, the sustainability plan may include a Memorandum of Understanding that details the commitment of project partners to continue a particular process, such as safe and high-quality youth mentoring. In my home community of Rochester, New York, major hospitals partnered to share expensive diagnostic equipment and medical services, primarily to save on direct costs (and the indirect costs of fundraising) but also to benefit patients and the community.


Margit Brazda Poirier, M.S., is a nationally certified grant professional (GPC) and Owner/CEO of Grants4Good LLC, a grant development consulting company that specializes in training and grant strategies.  www.grants4good.com

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