Sustainability has become a buzzword in the field of philanthropy. More and more donors and organizations put a lot of emphasis on this topic. When talking about sustainability in general, most people only think of environmental sustainability. This concept deals with environmental issues like climate change, depletion of soils, air pollution, etc. In most calls for proposals, the donor asks for a sustainability plan though that entails much more and is focused on the sustainability of the project itself. Many NGOs see this more as an afterthought than a prime concern, but the sustainability plan is actually very important.
Learn everything you need to know about it in this article and use it to your advantage in your next project proposal.
What is the sustainability plan?
The sustainability plan is basically a document, that describes how your project will be sustained in the long term. This document focuses on community sustainability, financial sustainability, and organizational sustainability. The sustainability plan has become more and more important because donors would like to fund projects that have the potential to survive and thrive in the long term. The sustainability plan describes the different aspects in which the project has to be sustained in the long run to still function.
The sustainability plan spells out how your project will survive in the long term. It makes sure that resources spent on the project are not lost. It gives you and the donor reassurance that the grant is well spent and will have a long-lasting impact, even once the support runs out.
Why do I need a sustainability plan?
Most donors require at least a paragraph in your proposal to be about the sustainability of your project. Some want you to write a full sustainability plan. But why do they want you to focus a lot of time on spelling out the sustainability of your project? Actually, when a donor decides to fund you, they invest in your project. Like with every investment, the donors want the money they spend to go a long way – and to have a lasting impact. They do not want your project to end after their support but want to spark sustainable change which has a long-term effect.
When you develop a thorough sustainability plan that makes sense and has all the important information, you show the donor that you think about the success of your project in the long term. It can convince the donor, that you are the absolute expert in the field you are working on and that you know what you are doing. It also shows the donor, that you truly have the best for the beneficiaries in mind, as you think about how the project will be sustained after the short-term financial support runs out.
But even if it is not required, it makes a lot of sense to think about the sustainability of the project and your organization and write a plan for this. This way, it becomes much clearer for everybody, what the long-term perspective for the project is and where you want to go with your project. Writing down a plan for the sustainability of your project will help you to become clearer on what you have to do and what the timeline for actions would be.
Many NGOs don’t put enough attention to writing the sustainability plan, as it is often the last part of a proposal. This leaves this section with a lot of potentials for you to stand out. When your sustainability plan is great, it can be the section that distinguishes your proposal from your competition and convinces the donor to actually fund your project.
What are the parts of a sustainability plan?
The sustainability plan normally has three parts. Like mentioned earlier, the sustainability plan does not necessarily refer to the environmental sustainability of the project – even though it is very important that you address this issue somewhere in your proposal. In the sustainability plan, you should focus only on the sustainability of your project itself. The three parts that you should address are the community sustainability, financial sustainability, and organizational sustainability of your project.
When describing project sustainability, many NGOs focus mostly on financial sustainability. Of course, this is an important part of the project sustainability, but it is not necessarily the most important part. While it is important to know how the project will be financed in the long term, the other parts of the sustainability plan are also very important. Without community and organizational sustainability, financial sustainability will not directly result in project sustainability.
What is community sustainability?
Community sustainability addresses the issue of how well the project is rooted in the community. It also describes how the community will continue with the project, once there is no more financial support from the donor. This part has been recognized as very important in the last decades, as it became more and more clear that without the support of the community, many projects have no chance of survival. If the community does not feel ownership of the project, even with a well-thought-out financing strategy, the project will probably fail.
A good way to ensure community sustainability is to include beneficiaries from the get-go in planning and implementation. Participatory methods can be very helpful for this. Consult with all stakeholders whenever possible to make sure that the community feels ownership for the project and that their preferences are implemented with your project.
What is financial sustainability?
Financial sustainability describes the ability of your project to survive financially. Here, you have to state what kind of funding sources you have for the future to make sure, the project can sustain its financial needs. Basically, you have two options to do this: rely on external sources or internal sources.
External sources of financing mean that the money comes from outside of the organization and is not raised by project activities. This could be more grants, government funding, donations, etc. When this is your plan, make sure to be as precise as possible, because if you only tell the donor that you will apply for more grants after the project finishes, you do not actually give them a lot of information.
Internal sources of financing mean that you have a plan to raise the money within the organization or through revenue-creating activities. This could be business ventures, membership fees, and other income-generating activities. It is important that you nevertheless have a good strategy in place from the first stages, as i.e. a social enterprise component needs to be smartly embedded in your project and cannot be added by the end.
Of course, your section about financial sustainability will look very different depending on the kind of project you want to implement. If you apply for a one-off project that will likely have almost no follow-up cost, you need to put much less thought into it than if you have a project that will have reoccurring costs that need to be covered in the long run.
What is organizational sustainability?
Organizational sustainability describes the ability of your organization as a whole to survive. The donors want to establish a long-lasting partnership, so they want to know if your organization will still be there in 10 years. This can also be achieved through external sources like grants and long-term funding or through internal sources like income-generating activities or membership fees. This section of the sustainability plan should not be neglected, as it is important to show the donor that you are a great partner that they can reckon with in the future.
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How to develop a sustainability plan?
Like we said above, normally the sustainability plan is one of the last sections in the proposal. Many fundraisers make the mistake of only thinking of it in these last stages of the proposal writing process. But if you have paid close attention earlier when we described the different kinds of sustainability, you will already have noticed that the sustainability plan does not only influence this section but the entire proposal. If you want to have strong community sustainability, you will need to design your approach in a way that fosters participation. If you want to ensure financial sustainability through the establishment of a social enterprise, your activities need to reflect that. Therefore, the sustainability plan is something that should be on your mind throughout the entire proposal writing process and something that you should have determined right in the beginning.
Make sure that your entire team is on board when you discuss your vision of a sustainability plan. It will influence many areas of your organization and your project, and everybody needs to know what the long-term strategy is to be able to implement it in a strategic way. Try to approach every aspect of your project planning with the question of how this is going to run in the long term and write these ideas down to develop your sustainability plan.
What makes for a successful sustainability plan?
So now you know what a sustainability plan is, why you need one, and how you can develop one.
But what makes for a successful sustainability plan?What should you look out for to write a good one?
There is actually quite some research out there, and according to studies, these are the most important factors that can influence project sustainability:
Having a coherent mission/theory of change for the organization
A good monitoring and evaluation system
The adaptability of the approach
Staff training in administrative tasks
Having multiple sources of funding
The organizational stability
Integration into existing systems and political support
Knowing this, you should try to keep these factors in mind and address them as detailed as possible in your sustainability plan. As many NGOs still neglect this section of the proposal, you have a great chance to shine here and make your proposal the special one that will ultimately win the grant!
Eva is based in Germany and has worked for nearly a decade with NGOs on the grassroots level in Nepal in the field of capacity development and promotion of sustainable agricultural practices. Before that, she worked in South America and Europe with different organizations. She holds a Ph.D. in geography and her field of research was sustainability and inclusion in development projects.