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Are We Sustaining Our Work or Sustaining Its Impact?

By Sarah Strunk on September 14th, 2016

Whether we’re nonprofit leaders, government agency directors, coalition partners, consultants, or local advocates, most of us who work in the healthy communities field cobble together our annual budgets from a variety of sources: Endowment income and unrestricted revenue, if we’re lucky. Multi-year grants, on occasion. Contracts and line item budget allocations, in a good year. Program service revenue, frequently. Given the inevitable ebb and flow of external funding, it’s no surprise that sustainability is a top-of-mind issue. But what exactly are we trying to sustain? Positions, programs, and activities, or the impact of our work itself?

By my count, I’ve read thousands of proposals from healthy community partnerships that are eager to apply for the latest round of local, state, or national funding. I’ve helped shape numerous CFPs (Calls for Proposals), RFAs (Requests for Applications), and FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) to guide those in search of support. I’ve also been on the other side of the table, writing dozens of proposals to secure new grants, contracts, and consultations for our organization. And despite recent insights about what it takes to support and sustain healthy communities, what we’re asked about sustainability hasn’t really changed much in the last 15 years:

Question 5: In no more than one page (approximately 500 words or 3,400 characters), describe how you will sustain your work once the project period ends. Please address strategies for securing financial and non-financial resources. Identify any matching commitments you have already received and those that are pending.  

Does this look familiar? Perhaps it’s time to begin reframing the question. Here’s why.

We know that communities are most successful in creating lasting change when they have a vision for health that is bigger than a single funding opportunity—a vision that is deeply rooted in the community’s context. One of Active Living By Design’s first grantees, Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services (KKV) turned a five-year, $200,000 grant into Hoʻoulu ʻĀina, a 100-acre nature park that serves as a vibrant place for intergenerational learning and healing. Its guiding principles are grounded in the community’s values and honor a culture that emphasizes reciprocity, shared connection, and responsibility. This means that artists and architects, hula dancers and hikers, farmers and philanthropists, early learners and elders worked side by side to make their vision of this sanctuary a reality. What’s more, KKV has already received national recognition for moving clinical care to the community and have achieved measureable improvements in health. While sustaining funding for the park has proved to be an ongoing challenge, a broader, long-term vision that recognizes Hoʻoulu ʻĀina as an essential resource for community healing, health, and well-being puts KKV in a better position to generate additional dollars and leave a legacy that lasts.

Similarly, we know that funders are most successful in supporting lasting change when their investments promote capacity-building that transcends a single funding opportunity. While we have seen plenty of foundations adopt (and, in some cases, require) certain approaches in the name of sustainability (collective impact, anyone?), funders that “get it” understand one size does not—cannot—fit all. They understand the importance of local context, and they pay close attention to communities’ unique needs. For example, many foundations encourage or require matched funding from engaged, long-term partners such as community foundations, conversion foundations, businesses, counties, and municipalities. Some, like the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust through its Healthy Places NC initiative, are making long-term investments in communities bolstered with capacity-building supports. These include collaborative learning and networking, technical assistance, and leadership development for those who are often left out of planning and decision making processes, such as youth, older adults, people with disabilities, and people of color.

And the RWJF Culture of Health Prize honors and elevates communities that are making great strides in their journey toward improved (and sustained) health. The six Prize criteria emphasize a broad and unified vision for health; long-term, sustainable solutions; equal opportunity for all; the collective power of everyone; securing and leveraging resources; and measuring progress and results. Meet the 2016 Prize-winning communities, just announced today, to learn how these diverse cities, counties, and regions are creating changes that last.

If Question 5 has felt limiting or downright outdated to you, you’re not alone. Isn’t it time we all address the real question: How will we sustain the impact of our work? If so, we might just need another page or two.

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.