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Sustainability: It Requires More Than Money (Pt. 1)

July 26, 2011

(Editor's note: this is the first of three posts from Kevin Monroe, founder and managing partner of X Factor Consulting LLC, and FC Atlanta's Expert in Residence for July.)

Kevin_Monroe_medium What's needed to sustain programs and/or services launched or expanded with grant funding?

For many, the first answer that comes to mind is money. Yet most of us know, from both our personal and professional lives, that money alone is not the ultimate solution to our problems. Ironically, for many organizations, too much money too early (or at the wrong time) weakens, rather than strengthens, the organization. Indeed, misunderstanding about sustainable funding abounds in the leadership ranks of many social benefit (nonprofit) organizations. I've watched organizations whose board members equated the announcement of a large grant award to winning the lottery and somehow thought the whole amount was available for discretionary spending and now their financial woes were ended. Some have regrettably slacked off, or worse, discontinued other fund development activities after receiving large grants.

If program sustainability does not hinge on money, then on what does it hang? We live in an age where people long for instant answers and silver-bullet solutions, and while providing a sure-fire sustainability silver-bullet solution would be beneficial to my bank account, I don't have one. However, what I do have to offer is an approach that is available and scalable to every organization -- not just those with an elite board and large endowment fund (though both of those are enviable assets).

Our approach to program sustainability focuses on three fundamentals that apply broadly to all organizations and programs. We call them the 3-Rs. And just as the 3-Rs of education don't include everything a student needs to know to master every subject, they are the foundational elements of a good education. Our 3-Rs are the fundamental elements essential to program sustainability. They include: results, relationships, and resources.

For existing programs, our first focus is results, and we see four key elements involved: produce, document, package, and promote.

1. Produce

What results does your program produce? (NOTE: if your program does not produce results, sustainability is a moot point as well as an exercise in futility.) Addressing program sustainability requires organizations to produce meaningful and measurable results. Results is the synonym we use for outcomes. We believe we live in a time where outcomes have overshadowed outputs. Therefore, investors in the common community good (whether individuals or institutions) want to know what's different about your clients or communities as a result of your program. It's great to have the count of how many people were served, but to what end?

2. Document

It's not enough to produce good results or outcomes. Organizations must have a system for documenting their outcomes. Unless you have a system for documenting your results, it's as though they didn't happen. (This stems from the social service maxim, If it's not documented, it didn't happen.) Program sustainability is enhanced when your documentation addresses your outcomes, not just your outputs. While it's great that you know how many service encounters were provided (outputs) under the grant, the real value, at least as it relates to sustainability, comes from documenting what's different for your clients or communities as a result of your program (outcomes). For example, an output of a job-readiness program may be the number of participants who completed the training program (acquired employable job skills along with interviewing and interpersonal skills). A short-term outcome would be the number of participants who obtain jobs and are working full-time and receiving a living wage.

In my experience consulting with government-funded human service projects, I've noticed that many grantees produced excellent results under the program and may have done great work documenting those results, but still those programs failed to be sustained. Their failures weren't program failures as much as they were shortcomings in marketing, communications, and community engagement (sustainability planning and implementation). The final two elements related to results are, arguably, the most critical in terms of sustainability: packaging and promoting your results.

3. Package

Data in and of itself is essentially useless. However, data is absolutely essential to information and knowledge. What do I mean? You can't provide funders reams of reports and expect them to sort through volumes of data looking for information about your programs or knowledge about your outcomes. Furthermore, it's important to realize that not all outcomes are equal, which makes it important to learn what outcomes are most valuable to the funder in question.

Package your results (outcomes) to showcase program impact. Many organizations have mounds of data but haven't taken the time to mine their data to find the jewels whose sparkle catches the gaze of current or potential funders and attracts both their attention and investment (initial or subsequent).

Several avenues exist for packing your results; here are a few. Focus on a change in status for your clients or communities. Perhaps your program helped move people from being homeless to housed, unemployed (even unemployable) to employed, dependent to self-sufficient. These are examples of high-impact outcomes. Another option for packaging your results to garner funder interest and investment is focusing on the return on investment (ROI) of your program. Perhaps you've leveraged massive amounts of volunteer hours or in-kind support and therefore can document significant ROI for your program. Your program may be an extremely cost-effective alternative, especially when juxtaposed with the currently funded options. For example, according to the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice, it costs South Carolina $300 a day to incarcerate a juvenile offender compared to $9.90 per day for intensive community-based case management and afterschool centers. For obvious reasons, the department has increased their investments in community-based corrections.

Mining your program data and extracting high-impact outcomes are ways to package your program to promote sustainability. There is one final piece, and that is to promote your results to those you know are (or may be) interested.

4. Promote

Our fourth and final element in terms of sustainability strategies is promoting your results. Hopefully you have a mix of both objective and subjective data to share consisting of reports and success stories. You see, some people are motivated by the data while others are moved by the story. I see value in having both -- the hard data which shows that your results are not an accident or a fluke but are replicable. However, real-life success stories have a way of making the data come alive rather than remaining a column of statistics.

This is strategic messaging at its best. Strategic messaging is the art of getting to know your target audience well enough to understand its motivations, interests, and desires. This allows you to skillfully promote your results in a way that best connects with your audience so they see your program intersects with their desires and advances their interests. It's important to note that you are not changing who you are or what you do, but promoting your program (or those aspects of your program) that are most appealing to the investor (funder).

It's also important to know the medium or media that your audiences prefer and, to the best of your abilities, use those media to promote your message to your audiences. Additionally, we encourage organizations to think broadly about other individuals or institutions that may, or should, care about your results if they were appropriately packaged and promoted. We’ll explore that more in next week's blog post when we examine the other two Rs -- resources and relationships.

Parting Thoughts

As you think about your results, I encourage you to remember that people appreciate your efforts but invest in your impact. While it's nice to be appreciated, you need investment to sustain your program. In your dialogue with current or prospective investors (funders), focus on the impact or outcomes of your program rather than its structure and activities. And invest some time to reflect on your current practices regarding your results and what steps you can take to better produce, document, package, and promote your results to enhance the sustainability of your programs.

-- Kevin Monroe

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