Bright Ideas: Kylie Hutchinson on Program Sustainability

By: Kylie Hutchinson

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Kylie Hutchinson is an independent consultant to not-for-profits and trainer with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation.

Her passion is working with community organizations and foundations to build their capacity in evaluation and program sustainability, as evidenced by the many free resources she has created on her website. She is the author of three books on program planning and evaluation: Survive and Thrive: Three Steps to Securing Your Program’s SustainabilityA Short Primer on Innovative Evaluation Reporting and Evaluation Failures: 22 Tales of Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned. 

Kylie tweets regularly at @EvaluationMaven.

I’m excited for the opportunity to write about something I feel truly passionate about these days – program sustainability.

“What are your plans for sustaining this project, if you are successfully awarded this grant?”

Does the question above look familiar to you?

I’m sure it does, because it’s on the majority of grant applications. Funders don’t want to be on the hook for supporting your project indefinitely, which is understandable. But, unfortunately, it’s a question that many non-profits struggle to answer confidently. 

For years, I used to wing my answer, saying something I thought the funder wanted to hear. Then one day I had the opportunity to research what factors are actually associated with program sustainability, and my world changed.

What I learned truly surprised me, because when I summarized this research, it turned out achieving sustainability wasn’t rocket science. In fact, the promoters of program sustainability read like many best practices for operating a non-profit: diversified funding, program champions, evaluation and performance measurement, and collaborative partners.

But there are other promoters that you might not immediately think about, such as having a strong volunteer base, in-kind resources, high visibility, and a formal 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.

More than ever, program sustainability is a concern for nonprofits and the grantmaking organizations that fund them. It’s one thing to fund novel programs that address important social issues, but what’s the point if they’re effective but don’t continue over time? Compare the two programs below. Program A struggles continually with sustainability, while Program B has a better handle on it. I ask you, which one would you rather be?

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Here’s the thing. We now know that program sustainability is not just about funding. Sure, funding is important, but sustainability is really the product of a proactive and step-by-step process.

I’ve always found it curious that while many organizations diligently a develop strategic plan, few take the time to craft a sustainability plan for their key programs. A sustainability plan is a conscious response to the fearful dilemma of what to do if you lose your major funding. And let me tell you, at some point, most programs will their major funding. 

An ideal sustainability plan is one that you develop at the beginning of your 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 eleventh hour when you’re about to lose your seed funding. 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 your sustainability planning relatively quickly. Most groups can do it in a day or less.

So, what are you waiting for? Take charge of your sustainability today and watch your programs not only survive, but thrive!