Keep Your Program Growing After the Money Runs Out

The success of your grant application will depend in part on how effectively your project can perform post-funding.

Technology Funding

 IF YOU’RE NOT FAMILIAR with the concept of project sustainability, you’d be well-served to acquaint yourself with it before applying for a US Department of Education (DoE) or foundation grant, when you’ll get a quick lesson in its importance. You’re likely to find that your proposal must include a description of how you will sustain your project beyond the grant period. Many schools and districts receive federal and private grants that are used to implement programs, but these programs all too often end when grant funds dry up.

So what is project sustainability? First, what it isn’t: It does not refer to an organization’s ability to keep its staff and activities after the grant period ends. Project sustainability denotes an organization’s ability to accurately determine and maintain desired outcomes, achieve long-term growth, and change in accordance with changing community conditions/needs. (How does your project stack up? See “8 Elements of Sustainability,” page 19.)

In 2003, the DoE commissioned a field study of the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (, which helps at-risk schools make the necessary reforms so that students meet achievement standards. The study examined two views on sustainability. The first view maintains that the “central changes” to be sustained should be the practices associated with the originally supported researchbased method. The second view holds that “successful sustainability” is not necessarily associated with the continued use of one particular method, but could involve the transition from one researchbased method to another, over time. This view is based on the idea that, rather than just adhering to the same initial practices, methods may need to be adapted as student improvement occurs.

A 2003 DoE study on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, which provides academic enrichment opportunities for children attending low-performing schools, also addressed the issue of sustainability (When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program First Year Findings; The study revealed that grantees relied “heavily” on grant funds, and few had developed “concrete actions” toward sustainability. Three factors were cited by grantees as having the greatest impact on sustainability efforts: First, program directors hold the responsibility for sustainability, but more than 50 percent hold other responsibilities, as well. Second, grantees in remote and low-income areas have limited local resources. Third, the 21st Century program did not require any matching funds. When the 21st Century program was reauthorized, it addressed sustainability by extending the number of years a grantee can receive funds and allowing states to set matching requirements.

Although funding is a sustainability issue discussed in this national study, it is important to recognize that funding is a result of effective sustainability planning and not the single factor measuring sustainability.

Forming a Sustainability Plan
Sustainability planning is a process that should begin during the early stages of project planning, and not when you have to write a paragraph on it for a grant application. The strongest plans address multiple aspects of sustainability and provide guidance over time. An effective sustainability plan can actually help an organization obtain investors and gain community support.

Begin your sustainability planning process by recruiting a planning committee, including individuals from within your organization, members of the community, and people who will be served by your project. Make sure that all members of your committee are willing to commit to the time needed to develop a sustainability plan. Once your planning committee is in place, start by reviewing what has already been done, and identify strengths and weaknesses of the project. Create a vision and goals, and decide how you will measure outcomes. Determine who is affected by your project outcomes. Organizations often are not realistic in their goals, activities, and outcomes. The danger in setting unrealistic expectations in order to obtain funding is that your project will be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

With the committee formed and the goals laid out, the next series of steps involves taking actions to support your project’s sustainability:

  • Identify current resources and gaps.
  • Determine additional human and financial resources needed to implement and sustain your goals.
  • Think about resources and expertise that can be shared, and then develop and prioritize strategies to obtain those resources.
  • Anticipating changes and adapting to them are keys to long-term sustainability; discuss potential changes in your community and population served that may change the scope or services of your project.
  • Identify a core and broad base of community supporters and key champions. Clearly define how the project benefits each supporter and champion. Find a supporter who can help your organization develop a marketing plan to build community awareness and support.
  • Make sure that key stakeholders are willing to adopt the proposed sustainability plan. Once all of these points are settled, you’ll have a plan you can now use to drive implementation—and sustainability.
8 Elements of Sustainability


1. VISION Develop a vision statement that clearly defines what it is that you want to sustain. A vision is a clear picture of what the organization would ideally like the project to be. A project will never be greater than the vision that guides it.

2. RESULTS Identify measurable outcomes and establish processes to track performance. The data collected should be used to improve the project and services over time.

3. STRATEGIC FINANCING & STEWARDSHIP Identify financial strategies that integrate project and community needs and decisions. Project leaders must be good caretakers of funds and know how to balance current decisions with future effects. Resources should always be used efficiently.

4. ADAPTABILITY Recognize that change is inevitable and can bepositive. Involve the community in planning and implementation.

5. COMMUNITY SUPPORT Develop broad-based community relationships that include and extend beyond financial contributions. Create a spirit of collaboration and responsibility among all current and future stakeholders.

6. CHAMPIONS Identify and develop champions who can assist your organization in gaining the recognition and resources needed to achieve short- and long-term goals.

7. INTERNAL SYSTEMS Identify and hire strong leadership, staff, and volunteers. Develop communication systems, processes, and a riskmanagement plan.

8. SUSTAINABILITY PLAN Develop a written document that includes each of the elements of sustainability and establishes an action plan. Prioritize actions and activities.

Sheila A. Fernley is the Education eLearning Curriculum Director for LRP Publications, which publishes resources for education professionals and parents. She has successfully written grants and trained others to write grants for more than 15 years.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.