Sustainable Funding: What to Do Before the Money Runs Out

If you expect grant money to be the lifeblood of your technology program, there’s an important question you must ask yourself: How are you going to get that next transfusion? Too many schools have put together innovative, worthwhile projects involving educational technology, only to see them fade away and die as soon as the grant period is over.

Is this inevitable? Are grants merely one-shot infusions of cash, or are there ways to keep them producing after the specified period has elapsed?

Actually, grantmakers themselves are aware of this dilemma. They know that it does little good to fund breakthrough projects with no hope of continuance or replication. That’s why so many grant applications ask you to include a section on sustainability in your proposal. This process forces you to think ahead and plan for that day when the grant is up and you’re back on your own.

What Is Sustainability?

What exactly is the sustainability section of a grant proposal and what are funders expecting to see in this section? It might be helpful to think of the sustainability section as the “future plans” section for the project. Sustainability refers to the need to secure future funds to keep a project going; however, it also refers to the continuation of training and project activities, the need to upgrade and maintain equipment purchased with grant funds, and the continuation of any partnerships that are integral to the project’s success.

The Department of Education, a major source of grant money for schools and districts, considers sustainability an important factor in a successful grant application. “We look for projects that will continue in operation and even grow after the grant funding ends,” says John Bailey, director of the Office of Educational Technology for Pennsylvania’s state Department of Education. “A big factor of the program's success is how many of the programs still operate once the funding ends. The best sustained funding is from local budgets.”

Keep in mind that in many cases, grants are considered the startup funds or “seed money” to get a project started, rather than a constant source of funding to maintain a project. Understanding this distinction sheds light upon why the funder is looking for applicants to address the sustainability issue. The basic assumption funders make is that if a project is worthwhile, it will continue after the project period. This makes sense in light of the fact that many grant awards cover only a 12-month period. In education, this is hardly long enough to implement a project that involves hiring new staff, training teachers, revising curriculum, instituting new teaching strategies, and having an effect on student learning! Funders want to know how the project activities are going to continue after the grant period, assuring the proposed impact of the project. No one wants to see gains that are made by the project lost in a relatively short period after funding ends.

A critical component of sustainability is showing the reviewers that your district supports the proposed project. Without this support, it is possible that reviewers will assume that the proposal is being submitted by an individual or a group from the district who came up with a “good idea” and decided to apply without notifying administrative staff or making sure that the idea fit in with the district’s plan. An easy way to convince reviewers of the sustainability of a project is to show, throughout the narrative and specifically in this section of the proposal, the connection between the proposed project and the district’s strategic plans. Referring to this connection in the proposal will allow reviewers to see how the proposed project was designed in coordination with the needs that have been identified and articulated in the district’s strategic plan.

Doing It Right

One of the most common mistakes made by grant writers is to respond to the question of sustainability by telling funders that additional grant opportunities will be researched and additional proposals will be written. This is supposed to reassure funders that the project will continue. But, says Bailey, “This ‘grant dependency’ doesn't indicate a sustainable solution, given that there is a risk of not receiving the funds.” Too many factors are beyond an applicant’s control to list “grants” as the key to sustainability. And remember the purpose of most grants -- to provide startup costs to enable a project to “get off the ground.” Seeking continuation funding via grants is difficult because there are limited types of these grants available.

According to Bailey, “Applicants need to understand that any grant program is a lot like venture capital. Only in grants, the funder isn't looking for an ROI in terms of money generated, but in terms of the people served, the improvements made, and the capability of the program to continue in the future. The best ideas often fall to the side because the group was unable to think of a way to keep their project going.”

For continuation funds it is common to see a request that a proposed project be expanded or enhanced, rather than being maintained at the current level. There are, however, other ways to ensure future funding. A project may begin to charge for services, funding may be received from an outside agency, or a campaign may be designed to raise funds from donations in the community. Include a detailed plan describing any of these strategies.

In order to make a strong case that the applicant believes in the project and supports it, there should be some commitment they are willing to “pick up” some of the expenses after the grant period. Understandably, some districts will make this kind of commitment to a project based only on the project’s performance and impact. This is fine as long as it is clear that the district is committed to the project. A letter from the superintendent of the school district outlining this commitment should be included with the proposal if the RFP allows for such letters in an appendix. If the project involves a partnership, there should also be some indication of the willingness of the partners to continue their involvement in the project after the grant period. An in-kind contribution of training or equipment or a cash contribution is obviously helpful to a project, but does not address sustainability if this will be done only during the initial grant period. If the proposal requires letters of commitment from partners, ask them to indicate in their letters how they will remain involved in the project after the grant period is over.

If project costs will be reduced after the initial grant period, indicate this in the sustainability section also. Some ideas to reduce costs might include using volunteers, reducing the number of clients to be served, or eliminating activities that are not cost-effective. A detailed plan of these cost-reducing strategies should be included in this section if applicable.

Building Sustainability

Dr. Sandra Becker, the Director of Technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Shillington, PA, has been very successful acquiring grants for technology initiatives in her school district. To address the issue of sustainability, Becker uses a “building block” approach to designing projects and to securing additional funding for projects.

She began seven years ago by approaching the Governor Mifflin Education Foundation for small grants to support classroom projects. If the projects were successful after the first year, the projects were then considered for district technology funds for the next year. As part of being considered for district technology funds, the projects were expanded to include other teachers in the same grade or in the same content area. As projects grew in scope they were considered for state funding and funding from outside the local area.

A project in the Governor Mifflin district involving a butterfly garden has, with several sources of funding, evolved into an award-winning project that is now an integral part of the curriculum in the district. The project was started with a foundation grant and a butterfly garden that was dug by students, teachers, and parents and some donations of plants. Then the state provided funding for the project to provide equipment to record sightings in the garden. A remote camera was funded by the Education Foundation to post the garden on a Website. Additional equipment was secured from a state environmental initiative grant. The district is currently waiting to hear from a national foundation to see if funds are forthcoming to purchase a “scope on a rope.” The time and effort that have been invested in this project speak to sustainability by showing that the district clearly supports the project and sees the value of continuing to expand it in order to provide ways for their students to study and learn that are enhanced by technology.

Questions to Ask

Here are some general ways to consider sustaining a project (both financially and programmatically) after the grant period:

- Is the district willing to turn grant-funded positions into positions that are included in the district budget?

- Will the training that is being implemented during the project become an ongoing part of the professional development for staff after the grant period is over? Can the costs for this training be absorbed into the district’s future costs for professional development?

- Can the activities that students will engage in during the project continue after the grant period is over? Can benchmarks for students during the project period be carried over beyond the time frame of the grant?

- Is it possible for the project to become self-sustaining after the grant period is over by generating revenue? Is it possible to design a training program or manual that can be marketed? Can students learn skills that could be marketed to the community to generate revenue for the project activities to continue beyond the grant period?

- Is there another source of funds that might make the commitment to pick up some of the costs of the project after the grant period? Examples might include a foundation, a corporate sponsor, or local government. Is the district willing to absorb any of the future costs?

The answers to these questions may spark ideas that will make the difference in whether you get that next grant -- and whether your efforts will provide educational benefits long after that original grant is history.

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is a national grantwriting consultant who provides grant development services and training to education and nonprofit clients across the country. She can be reached at (717) 295-9437 or .