The most demoralising thing is to see all your hard work come to naught, isn’t it? That is often how social impact specialists can feel when there isn’t sufficient sustainability baked into their interventions. Too many times I’ve had conversations where individuals confide in me their frustrations at not being able to deliver ‘sustainability’ for one reason or another. Often they think the donor is at fault for putting in place too rigid a grant design, or it is the fault of senior management who’s priority is not actually the beneficiaries but the organisation and specifically the organisation’s financial health. While of course historically there are a few examples where this is true, such moans and groans miss the broader points of what makes sustainability successful.
So here are three pointers to think about when next sustainability seems elusive:
- It is hard work: sustainability doesn’t happen overnight. It can’t simply be bought or programmed in for year 5 of 5. Sustainability needs to be considered from the very start of the background research into an idea. It requires persistence and determination. Which is why those organisations that don’t chase funding calls, focus on their vision and take the long road, tend to be better at understanding and designing sustainable interventions
- Everyone needs to be involved: sustainability is actually a misleading term. For something, some intervention to be successful in the longer term needs everyone to be involved, from the most marginalised beneficiaries to the most important policy maker. Stakeholders are crucial to the success of an intervention and need to be fully engaged and understand what is in it for them. Equally, intervention designers need to understand why stakeholders could and should get involved and what might be in it for them. We can of course talk about ‘vested interests’ in interventions all day, but the reality is that while we don’t want to encourage corruption, we do want to acknowledge that those projects where everyone feels like they have a stake are more sustainable (like the programme that empowers school children to challenge office bearers to be more accountable about funding and resources for school facilities, resulting in more and better quality school facilities because everyone can understand how impactful good facilities are
- Ownership is key: of course, at the centre of it all, the target communities need to feel a sense of ownership of the intervention. We hear time and again about ‘nothing about us without us’ and that is completely correct. But how often, in reality, does this really happen. Consultation with focus groups is not ownership, neither is a committee of community leaders. Social impact organisations have to understand that they don’t ‘own’ interventions (even it it does have their logo on the side), rather they should view themselves as facilitators for the community and the donors to work together to design and deliver interventions that ‘stick’.
What are your experiences of trying to get sustainable results? How successful has your organisation’s approach been?