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Section 1. Strategies for the Long-Term Sustainability of an Initiative: An Overview

Learn how to lay the groundwork you need to create a plan for institutionalization, and increase your initiative or organization's impact.


Image of a brick wall with one golden brick, and the words: For changes to be of any true value, they've got to be lasting and consistent. --Tony Robbins


So your initiative has really taken off. Congratulations! Now you want to make sure that all of your hard work will not be washed away by time and inactivity. If you believe in the work you are doing, you want to find a way to keep it going when the grant lapses, the political winds change, or when someone important (even you!) must leave the organization. In short, you want to make your initiative a permanent part of the community. To do this you must sustain your initiative.

What does this mean?

Sustainability is the active process of establishing your initiative - not merely continuing your program, but developing relationships, practices, and procedures that become a lasting part of the community.

You may have several different reasons for wanting to do this, depending on what kind of an initiative or organization it is.

But one thing is clear: developing a plan for the sustainability of your initiative will increase its impact. And it will certainly make your life easier, because the group members will have a better idea of what they will be doing next month and next year. In this section, we will help you lay the groundwork you need to create such a plan.

What is a plan for sustainability?

Planning is a way to organize actions that will lead to the fulfillment of a goal. We've talked in other sections of the Tool Box about the importance of planning and how to do it.

Before you do that, however, it's important to look at what is unique to planning for sustainability. Your goal in this case is to maximize long-term benefit to your community. If you have created something of value, you don't want it to disappear. Because of this larger goal, planning for sustainability is more long-term than much of the other planning you will do, and it is also more all-encompassing. It asks you to step away from the daily details of running your organization and look at the picture as a whole.

How do you do that? By looking at the important questions, answering them frankly, and then using those answers to develop your strategic plan. Below is a list of eight questions that are basic to just about any sustainability effort. We suggest several key members of your coalition work together to answer them, and also decide together if there are other important questions unique to your initiative that should be discussed.

  • What is the nature of our initiative (or organization)?
  • What are the goals of our initiative?
  • What has our initiative done?
  • What publicity has our initiative received?
  • How is our initiative structured and governed?
  • Does our initiative have sufficient staffing?
  • Is our budget sufficient to cover expected costs now and in the future?
  • What are some obstacles we may encounter? And how do we get around them?

Example: We've worked really hard for over a year now. We believe our efforts to decrease the rate of homeless mentally ill in our city have been helpful; however, we cannot keep having bake sales every time we need money.

Because our initiative is new and lacks structure and legitimacy, we miss out on opportunities for funding. People don't even really know who we are. And besides, our fearless leader, Karin, is getting tired. He's been working over twenty hours a week in addition to his regular job on this initiative, and at this rate he'll surely burn out.

If we don't do something soon to provide our initiative with the staying power it needs to continue on into the years to come, it may be in trouble. But how do we go about doing this? How can we make sure our initiative will last?

  • Here's the key point: Planning to sustain our initiative will help us if we want it to be around in the future. Answering the questions above will save us time in the long run, and increase the chances of accomplishing our goals.

Why should you plan for sustainability?

  • To give yourself the time you need to solve the problem. The larger the problem, the longer it often takes to solve. In some cases, a full solution may not come about for years.

For example, we're not going to end child abuse overnight, sadly enough. If the issue you are working on requires a similarly long-term solution, you'll want to be around for a while.

  • To help you map out how to get from point A (an initiative with little structure and an uncertain future outlook) to point B (a sustained initiative with the structure and legitimacy it needs for future years of service).
  • To make your sustainability efforts more efficient and effective. A plan is important because it focuses on the set of steps you will need to go through to achieve your ultimate goal, in this case an initiative with lasting impact. A planned effort will almost always be superior to an unplanned, disorganized attempt.
  • Also, developing a plan to keep your initiative alive will almost certainly be more cost-effective than starting a new program, or starting your initiative all over again!

When should you plan for sustainability?

Planning for sustainability can't come any too soon. Begin as soon as your organization creates its vision, mission, and objectives. Even as you consider which strategies to pursue, you should consider the sustainability of the planned efforts. Planning for sustainability is a process, not a one-time event.

How do you plan for sustainability?

As we mentioned above, the first step in planning for sustainability is to answer the important questions. Let's look at the eight key questions (or steps) given above in greater detail.

Step 1. Ask yourself: What is the nature of our initiative or organization?

Not all initiatives or organizations are the same. The decision to sustain your initiative or organization depends a lot on your purpose and future plans. Before you make any decisions about your initiative or organization's future, ask yourself, "What is my initiative all about?" and, "Where do we see ourselves in two years time?"

Initiatives and organizations tend to be purposeful. There's little doubt you will have answers for these questions. Otherwise, you would probably not have banded together in the first place. Now, you need to articulate or reaffirm your purpose.

Example 1: You may be part of an initiative to decrease the rate of teen-age pregnancy in your city. This is not an easy issue with a quick fix. It seems obvious that your organization is planning on staying around for a while. You must take steps to make sure your organization has the durability to survive in the non-profit world. But what do you do from here?

Example 2: Conversely, you may be part of a city-wide initiative to clean up the area around the river that runs through your city. People involved in this initiative may have varying reasons for getting involved, but the purpose of the initiative is clear: to clean up the area around the river. What is unclear is whether or not your one-time cleanup will do the job. Will or should this group of people ever meet again after the cleanup is complete? Will or should an organization form to clean up all of the city's eyesores? Here, you have choices. The answers to these questions aren't necessarily apparent.

An initiative that plans to meet in the future with a definite mission may feel that it has a need to develop an ongoing structure, whereas a group of volunteers that band together occasionally to clean may or may not. Thinking about the nature of your initiative or organization will help you decide.

Step 2. Ask yourself: What are the goals of our initiative?

Goals are important to any organization, no matter how large or small. Community building is not easy work, but it is rewarding and it can be fun. A key to getting satisfaction from any kind of community change effort is to be able to see your hard work turn into positive results. One way to mark these results is the achievement of your goals.

In order to have the satisfaction of seeing your goals fulfilled, you must have clear goals from the start. The goals of your initiative may seem to range from "a piece of cake" to "overwhelming," but don't worry - the whole reason you are planning to sustain your initiative is because you are planning to be around for a while.

So relax. Some initiatives may even produce unexpected positive results.

Example: Your organization may have formed to see that a set of traffic lights be put up at a dangerous intersection within your neighborhood. Since your "traffic light initiative" became widely known, neighbors have been coming out in droves to show their support. During your weekly meeting to discuss the traffic situation, some people have voiced other neighborhood concerns. Now your initiative must ask itself what it wants to be when it grows up.

What are its goals?

  • Will your initiative be satisfied with the appearance of the one traffic light it set out to get? Or
  • has its goals changed?
  • Do people now wish to become a neighborhood organization with an open forum for neighbors to discuss concerns?

Once your initiative can decide what its goals are, you will be one step closer to its sustainability.

Step 3. Ask yourself: What has our initiative done?

When you start planning to sustain your initiative, it's an especially good time to step back and survey what you have accomplished so far. By seeing your successes and possibly re-examining some mistakes you may have made along the way, you will better understand where you are and where you're going. Take those accomplishments and use them to plan! Build on what you have done. You've learned a lot since you started. If you've done well, do more of the same, or possibly branch out in new directions. If you've struggled, take a look at why. Your accomplishments should help you to grow!

Example: Our initiative to form a coalition of agencies to lower the incidence of teen violence after school has met with mixed success. After only one year in existence, our initiative, TEVAS (Teens Erase Violence After School), has four member organizations, including the originators. The Big Brother Program is encouraging its big brothers to take their little brothers to the after-school basketball league; the YMCA is donating the basketball court time; and the local university has arranged for students to run the basketball league and teach the teens social competence skills.

These things are great! But stepping back and looking at our initiative more critically, we can see that only a fraction of our target population is involved in the league. For example, not everyone has a big brother, although some teens are joining on their own. In addition, we may be excluding teens who can't play basketball well and may be afraid to play for fear of embarrassing themselves. Also, we don't know how well the university students are teaching the social competence skills, nor if the teens are learning. We've heard reports that the basketball is great but the classes are "boring." And finally, we haven't built any evaluative component into our initiative. As we've seen just by stepping back, things are going well, but we're not perfect. The more complicated things get, the more we'll need to be able to objectively evaluate how things are going. We need to analyze and evaluate our accomplishments if we want to continue and improve our work in the community.

Wow! This isn't that hard. What's next?

Step 4. Ask yourself: What publicity has our initiative received?

Are you public yet? Who knows about your initiative? Let's hope it isn't the best -kept secret in the world. Your organization has probably worked very hard, and the more people who know about its existence the better.

Remember: You want people to know about you. You want your name in people's minds. If your initiative is kept quiet, people may wonder why - or worse yet, they'll never hear about you at all. An effective community organization is too good to keep secret. Besides, if you want new members, keeping quiet is not the way to go about it. Announcing your existence will make your organization feel confident. Opponents will begin to worry about you. Supporters will be happy you're around, and your initiative will have more staying power. It's a win/win situation.

How public do you want to go? Well, that depends on you. You may want to put flyers on every car in the city, advertise in the newspaper, participate in a demonstration, or even arrange a press conference to proclaim the existence of your initiative. It's up to you.

However you decide to publicize your work, just remember that what's important is that the public becomes aware of who you are, what you are doing, and the fact that the door is always open for people interested in helping out.

Example 1: Jon's initiative is not going so well. He is trying to get the city to remove all of the lead paint from the run-down buildings in the downtown area. Jon began his initiative by slipping flyers under the doors of a few people he thought would be interested in doing something about the lead paint problem. But whenever the group met, there were always fewer than ten people.

Few people are even aware of Jon and the efforts of his group. The initiative seems to be a secret organization. Not only are they small in number, but when their leader, Jon, contacted City Hall to discuss the removal of lead paint, they said that they had never heard of his initiative.

Also, members of Jon's group encountered resistance from Jon when they suggested that the group either try enlisting the help of the city council or demonstrating near City Hall. Jon was worried that the City Council would definitely say "no," and demonstrating would only anger the city.

Jon's method of continually meeting and brainstorming with his core and only members seems to work less and less as the weeks drag on and nothing gets accomplished. Members have been quitting and the initiative is all but dead.

Some problems Jon's initiative faces:

  • Few people know about it.
  • Few people are involved with it.
  • The public is still unaware of the issue and Jon's initiative to fight it.

Marcelo's initiative is having better luck.

Example 2: Marcelo's initiative to keep some major corporations from dumping sludge in his town is going well. Marcelo has been quite a vocal spokesperson for the cause, being quoted in the local newspaper virtually every day. The initiative, Neighbors Against Sludge Around Here (NASAH), received wide press coverage when it picketed one of the proposed dumping sites. They have also had a few press conferences near the sites. The publicity his organization has received has prompted many residents to write to their town council, senators, and congress to protest the proposed sludge. At the latest "standing room only" town meeting, residents voted not to allow their town to be a dumping ground for sludge.

In Marcelo's case, publicity is doing a lot of the hard work for him. The more awareness exists around a problem, the easier it should be to get support.

The difference between the two examples is clear. Although both the issues of lead paint removal and sludge are important, neighbors have been vocal and supportive of Marcelo's initiative because they are more familiar with it. But in Jon's case, there has been little support for the initiative because it has been kept quiet.

Marcelo's initiative was publicized, and Jon's kept hidden. Which do you think is more likely to last?

Step 5. Ask yourself: How is our initiative structured?

The term "structure" may carry positive or negative connotations. To some it may mean something well organized and efficient. To others, it may mean endless paperwork or rules and regulations. But however one looks at it, some structure is necessary, because without it things fall apart.

Initiatives and organizations operate within different degrees of structure. The structure of an initiative is closely related to the ease or difficulty of its sustainability. Generally speaking, the better defined the structure, the easier sustainability becomes.

To help determine how structured your initiative is, try to answer these questions:

  • Does your organization have clearly defined policies regarding membership, elections, establishing committees, changing laws, and spending money?
  • Do you meet regularly, at the same time and place?
  • Are there clear policies about how meetings should run?

The answers to these questions will help you decide how structured your initiative is. Knowing how well your organization is structured will help when it comes time to sustain. If you decide it needs more structure, you can start taking steps to build this in.

Another reason you want to sustain your initiative is so that it can continue to run smoothly when the present leaders have moved on, and when new leadership emerges. Grooming new leaders is one of the most important things an organization should do if it wishes to survive. Knowing how the organization works, and passing that information down to the next generation, will save these new leaders from some of the pitfalls you have experienced.

Example: Our initiative to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy has been around for a while, but it still needs structure. So far, we have done things mainly by the seat of our pants. Our dedicated leader, Betsy, has had the burden of making most of the decisions herself with the help of a core group of leaders. The reason for this is our initiative doesn't have any policies regarding decision-making. Because Betsy is the leader, the other members feel it is Betsy's place to make all the decisions. But Betsy won't be able to be the leader forever, and we're not sure what will happen to the initiative when she leaves.

Creating a sufficient amount of organizational structure, and transferring it to new leadership, will help ensure your initiative's survival. And if you know how your organization works, but you haven't already written it down, now would be a good time!

Step 6. Ask yourself: Does our initiative have sufficient staffing?

Basically, this question is easy; it doesn't involve brain surgery. Does your initiative have sufficient staffing? Do some members of your organization feel like they're doing more than their fair share? If so, you may want to recruit more members, take on more volunteers, or hire more paid staff, depending on your situation.

You may also want to consider spreading out the work. Naturally, some organizations have so much work that no matter how it's delegated, there's always too much. Other organizations may find that they have enough people power; they just need to split up the workload more fairly.

Think about which situation your organization most closely resembles; that will provide you with an answer. Remember, your organization has a much better chance or surviving if the workload is well distributed, so that everyone has at least a small piece of the action.

For more information, see Chapter 9: Developing an Organizational Structure for the Initiative.

Step 7. Ask yourself: What are some obstacles we may encounter? And how will we get around them?

Anticipate obstacles that may occur. Things don't usually run perfectly, and anything can and sometimes does happen. By knowing the history of your organization and that of the groups you work with, you'll have an idea of where many problems might occur, as well as how to prepare for them. Be prepared to overcome likely obstacles, and keep an eye open for those that spring up out of the blue. A hurdler doesn't worry about tripping over hurdles; he or she hurdles them. You must be prepared to do the same.

Step 8. Ask yourself: Is our budget sufficient to cover our expected costs now and in the future?

This question needs to be considered very carefully; it may determine the life span of your initiative. If you feel you have enough funding to cover your costs, you may want to start thinking about expanding. If you feel you don't have sufficient funds to cover your costs now and in the future - it's time to start thinking seriously about raising money.

In Summary

Answering the eight questions brought up in this section isn't enough, on its own, to ensure that your program will remain in existence through changes in leadership or funding, or when other important events affect your initiative. Nonetheless, answering them is an important "first step" to be taken before you write your action plan for sustainability. This thorough understanding of what you stand for, what you want to achieve and how to get it will almost certainly lead to an effective, well-respected organization - in short, one that's almost guaranteed to be around for a long, long time.

Online Resources

A Sustainability Planning Guide for Healthy Communities describes science‐ and practice‐based evidence designed to help coalitions, public‐health professionals, and other community stakeholders develop, implement, and evaluate a successful sustainability plan.

Coalition Sustainability Characteristics describes the main characteristics a group needs to be sustainable.

Factors that Promote Sustainability is formatted in a checklist to help groups decide where to focus in order to achieve sustainability.

Key Sustainability Tasks for Coalitions outlines the tasks that need to be accomplished in each stage of development to achieve sustainability.

Letting Go: Why It's So Hard to Say Goodbye (to our interventions) an article from Community Psychology about de-implementation which is the process by which health promotion and prevention-oriented interventions end.

The Program Sustainability Assessment Tool: A New Instrument for Public Health Programs is from the CDC. This "PSAT" is a new and reliable instrument for assessing the capacity for program sustainability of various public health and other programs.

Promoting Sustainability of Community Health Initiatives: An Empirical Case Study describes an empirical study of strategies used to promote sustainability of community health initiatives. A total of three initiatives for prevention of adolescent pregancy and three initiatives for prevention of adolescent substance use in Kansas were studied.

Sustainability information page from Implementation Matters.

The CDC's article entitled Using the Program Sustainability Assessment Tool to Assess and Plan for Sustainability is a helpful resource that includes a case example of a chronic disease program that completed the Program Sustainability Tool and engaged in program sustainability planning.

Print Resources

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Lefebvre, R. (1990). Strategies to maintain and institutionalize successful programs: A marketing framework. In N. Bracht (Ed.). Health promotion at the community level. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Steckler, A., & Goodman, R. (1989). How to institutionalize health promotion programs. American Journal of Health Promotion, 3(4), 34-44.