The Ultimate Guide To Answering The “Sustainability Question” In Grant Applications

The Ultimate Guide To Answering The “Sustainability Question” In Grant Applications

When I was growing up my mother always told me not to use the word “hate”. I remember the passion with which she would scold us when she heard it slip from our lips. Over time, and as I grew older, the word “hate” just wasn’t part of my vernacular.

It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, as I regularly connected with grant writers in the community, that the word “hate” came back into my consciousness with full force. Maybe they were just being extreme, trying to make a point, but grant writer after grant writer began to tell me in casual and not so casual conversation about how much they “hated” the sustainability question. I found it odd, because as a funder it was an extremely important part of the application process. But the more I listened to the ones preparing the proposals, the more I understood.

Are you part of that group of “haters”? Is the sustainability question one that pushes you over the edge every time you look to complete your proposal? There are some grant writers that might want to argue that it’s not a fair question, that the question sets grant writers up to sound silly or to make it seem like they don’t know how to properly plan or think through their program with a long-term perspective.

At GrantsEdge, we know this is a difficult and even painful question, and the purpose of this blog is not to defend the merits of the question one way or another. Your reality, as a grant writer, is that you need to be able to reasonably demonstrate that your organization has a plan and an ability to sustain the financial, programmatic, and leadership aspects of the program beyond the scope of the grant funding for which you are applying.

As a former funder with more than 17 years experience reviewing grant proposals, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to answers to this infamous question.

What follows is a glimpse into some of the ugliness as well as an ultimate guide for effectively conquering the hated sustainability question.

SPOILER ALERT: It’s not just about having convincing words on a page, YOU ACTUALLY NEED A PLAN.

Ugly Answer #1: We have no idea

Believe it or not, some applicants ignore the sustainability question and the intent behind it by simply confessing that they simply have no clue what they will do when the grant runs out. This “beautiful” (see the dripping sarcasm) answer can quickly cause a funder to place the proposal on the “NO” pile. A project with no sustainability plan is not a good investment. Not many would invest in a business venture that had no specific plans for longer-term sustainability. Funders want to invest in projects that have the capacity to impact communities for the long-term. Don’t ignore the question, unless you don’t mind being declined.

Ugly Answer #2: We are hoping the government will pick up the funding

This approach is not much different than the “we have no idea” answer from earlier. Many organizations think that it is relatively easy to obtain government funding and that they will provide base or annualized funding. While the government does have some ongoing funding programs, there aren’t a lot of new ones and when there are, they have very specific outcomes that they are looking to fund. The chance that your particular approach is a strong fit with their priority areas and outcomes is remote.

Ugly Answer #3: We believe our numbers will quadruple

This is the dreaded “unrealistic” answer to the sustainability question, and an answer funders see far too often. While it is entirely possible to quadruple outcomes, outputs, and overall numbers over the course of one year, it is highly unlikely. Funders have seen many grant applications and are fairly astute at assessing whether the grant proposal’s projections and numbers are reasonable or not. In answering this way, grant writers are suggesting that the sustainability of the program will come through based on new revenue streams created by the exponential growth of the program.

Remember though, when you are setting projections you need to consider that your proposal might actually be successful. If you are awarded the money, the funder will be measuring your success against those projections. Setting unrealistic expectations may be setting the organization up for difficult and ugly conversations with your funder later.

Not Quite as Ugly Answer #1: We will introduce a new fundraising event

Fundraising events can be a great addition to any organization’s revenue stream and long-term sustainability plan, but event planners and organizations with significant experience in fundraising will tell you that it often takes a couple of years before a gala event or golf tournament makes enough money to begin to break even. These are huge events to organize and “pull off”, and when one considers the full cost of hosting the event, including all staff time involved, it is a significant investment of time and resources. It can also be difficult to estimate accurately what the revenue may be in the first year of an event. Organizations need to recognize that if a significant portion of your program is dependent on a successful fundraising event, you will have to implement that event every single year.

The fundraising event is not a bad strategy (or no one would be doing it), and not necessarily a bad answer to the sustainability question, but funders may not see this approach as the best or only way to sustain a program.

How SHOULD We Answer The Sustainability Question?

Too many organizations go the ugly route when answering the sustainability question. It’s time for a different approach. Here are some of the answers that your organization may want to consider as you begin to formulate your proposal.

Good Answer #1: We have a plan in place for diversifying our revenue streams

The diversification of revenue streams is music to a funder’s ear. But, don’t just say you are going to diversify, your proposal needs to have a carefully thought through plan that can be outlined in your proposal. It is also important and incredibly helpful to include some clear and realistic targets outlined as part of this plan. Be realistic in setting your goals and provide the funder with a timeline for when you believe you will begin to reach the various parts of your plan. Diversification of funding streams may include introducing user fees, selling products or services, and incorporating fundraising activities.

Formalizing plans to diversify your revenue streams, while demonstrating specific goals and timelines will signify to the funder that you plan on being around for the long haul – which feels like a much wiser investment and is a much more attractive option for them to fund.

Good Answer #2: We know the program costs will decrease

Another important element of a good answer to the sustainability question in a grant proposal is to let a funder know if the costs related to running the program will decrease once the initial set-up is complete. With some projects/programs the start up phase is the most expensive, as marketing costs or initial staff investments can be significant. If the budget needed to operate your project/program is going to decrease in the future, be sure to include that in your answer, as that will provide funders with important context about what it will take to sustain your work.

Good Answer #3: We will know more after the evaluation

Many funders are particularly interested in the evaluation component of a program or project. Funders are hesitant to jump in with a large cheque if the evaluation process has not yet been completed. If there is an evaluation component to your program/project, it may become more enticing to new funders because the research and learning has already taken place. A robust evaluation answer in your grant proposal can then impact a funders understanding and perspective on your program’s/project’s sustainability.

Good Answer #4: We have a strong plan for collaboration

The long-term sustainability of a project can be significantly aided by the participation and involvement of other organizations. Before writing your grant, do the hard work to determine whether or not you have some collaborative partners who are excited to continue working with you once the grant expires. What will these groups invest? What physical or financial resources might they bring to impact the sustainability? Describe your partnerships clearly in the grant proposal and leverage this as part of your sustainability plan.

Good Answer #5: We will focus on sustaining outcomes not programs

Often, when grant writers interpret the sustainability question, they assume that funders expect the program to remain fully intact and unchanged. That is not necessarily the case. Funders are often most interested in long-term community impact, not the longevity of a program. As you begin to build your program/project you will need to identify whether your situation is one where the outcomes can be sustained while the program investment is severely decreased.

An example of this might include a situation where a grant is provided to help an organization build new curriculum to address high participant drop out rates from a specific program. Once the curriculum has been built, the outcome of increased retention rates can be solidified without the need for ongoing funding support.

Don’t Hate The Sustainability Question

We know the sustainability question isn’t an easy one, but it’s here to stay. Talk to your funder, if you can, to try and get a sense for what they might be seeking in the answer to this question, and look to these five ‘Good Answer” strategies to see how they might fit with your specific situation.