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We have a great program! How do we sustain it?

How many of us have found ourselves in this position:

Your organization received a demonstration grant for an innovative approach to address a community need. The evaluation results are promising. But the funds are time-limited. Now your organization is in the position of having to find resources to continue the initiative in a short period of time. So you begin looking for funding and because you don’t want a gap in services, you feel unable to limit yourselves only to funding that is directly applicable to your approach to meeting the community need.

Sustainability planning is about more than finding the money. Certainly finding the money is important, but financing is just a tool to getting your community need addressed.

 

What is Sustainability Planning? What is it not?

Sustainability planning is not a one-time process that happens when a grant is running out or there is a financial crisis. A sustainability plan is in essence a business plan that provides strategic direction, is continually updated as things change, and serves as a strong marketing tool so you never get into the position outlined above. In order for this to happen, you need to articulate the vision – paint a clear picture of what you want to sustain and why you want to sustain it. Start by answering these questions:

1. What outcome are you trying to achieve?

2. How will you know if you have achieved those outcomes?

Next you need to define your program. We know that you understand your program, but in order for potential funders to see the value, it helps to spend the time to articulate the key elements of your program or initiative that you want to sustain. Start by answering these questions:

1. What are the crucial elements of your initiative that need to be sustained for the outcome to remain achievable?

2. Why are these elements crucial to the outcome?

Is the Program a Shared Community Priority?

An important part of sustainability planning is engaging a range of stakeholders that can help you build the will to sustain the program or initiative. So once you have a clear idea of what you want to sustain, the next step is to articulate the community benefit. Start by answering these questions:

1. What need does your program address?

2. What’s the benefit to the community to addressing that need?

3. Can you show how you are effectively addressing that need?

Once you’ve articulated the community benefit, you can determine whose support you need, and how to garner broad community support  so that your program becomes a shared community priority. Start by answering these questions:

1. Who are the key stakeholders in this particular community need?

2. Who are the key stakeholders in the community who can make your vision and program a reality?

The All-Important Ask

It is only once you’ve thought through the four steps above that you can do a good job of articulating the ask so that funders can immediately see themselves backing. Start by answering these questions:

1. What is it that you want funders to do?

2. How does your program benefit the funder? Does it help them meet their legal or established mandates?

Recap: Steps to Setting the Strategic Direction

As we discussed in the previous sections, the five major steps to setting a strategic direction are:

1. Articulating The Vision: What are you trying to achieve? How will you know when you get there?

2. Defining Your Program: What the key elements of your program/initiative that you want to sustain?

3. Community Benefit: What is the benefit to the community? What need does your program address? Can you show how you are effectively addressing that need?

4. Garnering Broad Community Support: Who are the key stakeholders who can make your vision and program a reality?

5. The Ask: What do you want funders to do? How does your program benefit the funder? (e.g., Does it help them meet their legal mandate?)

Once all five of these elements are in place you are now ready to move on to the kind of strategic financing that will allow you to fund exactly the activities that can achieve your desired outcome. These steps can help you to avoid the common mistake of focusing on the money first and then designing the program or initiative to fit the funders’ requirements.

 

Resources

Sustainability Planning and Resource Development for Youth Mentoring Programs

This free guide was prepared by the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence & the National Mentoring Center at Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, with support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice. It explores key planning and fundraising strategies for youth mentoring programs, but is also applicable to other sustainability planning efforts.

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Tips to Ensuring Your Evaluation is a Learning Tool

It used to be that evaluation was something that happened occasionally, was sometimes required by funders, and could sometimes be useful. Not anymore. When you ask a room full of people who are trying to make a meaningful difference whether they have been part of an evaluation, almost everyone raises their hand. But what that means – being part of an evaluation – differs greatly from person to person.

Evaluation can be about accountability, meeting a funder requirement, or even providing information back to your board. At its best, though, evaluation is about learning – learning what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t, what to do better next time.

 

Focusing your evaluation on learning

The earlier you decide to use your evaluation as a learning process, the more likely it is that it will work out that way. As your evaluator is planning the evaluation design, talk to them about what you want to know, what will help you to do good, even better. Try exploring some of the questions below with your evaluator – each of these question may bubble up an important area for learning!

  • Are we implementing a strategy that is new to us, something we’ve never tried before?
  • Is there a strategy we’re implementing in a new way or with a new target population?
  • Is there a strategy we’ve been implementing for years, but never assessed to see if it really makes a difference?
  • Is there information about our external environment that will help us to tailor our strategies and better achieve our outcomes?
  • Is there information about our own organization’s internal capacity that will help us know if we’re ready to implement a strategy?

If these questions do not help you narrow your learning, try filling in the blank on this statement instead:

  • Unless we know ____________________________, we won’t know how to improve our strategy.

Focus your evaluation on both Strategies and Outcomes

This may sound obvious to some of you, but it bears repeating. When we want to learn from our evaluation, we need to understand the relationship between the strategy we are implementing and the outcomes we are achieving. Let’s use some definitions:

Strategy: A defined approach to implementing multiple smaller actions (tactics), which are collectively intended to achieve a particular outcome. Strategies are completely within your control to implement or not implement as you choose.

 

Outcome: The change you hope to influence as a result of your strategies. It may be a change in people (yourself, your target audience, community members) or even a change in the environment (built environment, health of habitats, etc.). You cannot control whether it occurs, only do your best to influence the change.

Work with your evaluator to make sure that they are capturing the relationship between decisions and actions that are within your control and the outcomes they achieve, those things you can only hope to influence. When your evaluator presents results, telling you whether or not you’ve achieved your outcomes, nothing is worse than not being able to figure out what to change to improve your outcomes.

 

Intuitive learning matters too!

We’ll talk more about this in another blog coming soon, but here’s the teaser: Your evaluator, no matter how amazing, does not have the intuitive and on-the-ground knowledge of the people implementing the program. Understanding what an evaluation is really telling you means taking into account your intuitive knowledge of what is happening in your program. To learn from an evaluation, you need high quality evaluation results, but you also need to explore what the evaluation results mean with the people who understand your program best, including staff, volunteers, and even consumers.

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Sustainability Planning ~ Realities and Strategies

The great recession and subsequent belt tightening of our funders— from local and federal government to foundations, corporations and individual donors— have created a challenging funding environment for many community based organizations. Yet sustainability, the word de jour of our funders, is inarguably a necessity.

How many times have you applied for funding from a foundation and inevitably, come across the following question on a grant application: “How does your organization plan to sustain its efforts beyond this grant?”

 

Sustainability Beyond Your Doors

While organizational sustainability is naturally a priority— increasingly, funders and policymakers also want to know how your organization is contributing to the overall sustainability of the system your organization operates within. Despite this upping of the ante, organizational and system sustainability often goes hand-in-hand; similar to bricks and a building—you need one to build the other, but without the vision of the building your bricks would serve no purpose. As a result of growing awareness and knowledge of how organizations function within and contribute to a larger system, there are now some best practices in sustainability planning on a systems level.

 

Set Your Direction for the Future Together

Including the system in your sustainability planning is about identifying how your organization can contribute to that bigger picture.

Community organizations are often working towards a higher purpose, such as reducing homelessness, and that higher purpose involves sustaining and improving systems of support for a target population, be it children, families, justice-involved juveniles, etc. Systems sustainability planning should include a thoughtful and structured process of meeting with your organization’s key collaborators and developing a road map.

Your systems sustainability roadmap define the direction you will all go together, including such things as:

  1. Increasing community capacity to serve a target population – is cross-training between organizations needed or is one agency using a screening tool that others might want to adopt as well?
  1. Identifying other nonprofits, government entities, businesses that should be at the table to ensure that services are not duplicated and that a continuum of services are available to young children and their families.
  1. Developing strategies to not only recruit those partners, but to meaningfully engage them in the collaborative effort.
  1. Defining clear roles of all the partners involved in collaborative efforts to improve the system through, for example, memorandums of understanding.
  1. Soliciting collaborative partners’ input on how to be good stewards of limited resources by asking specific questions, such as:
    • Are we working with our partners to develop shared staffing models and/ or shared office space? (Thereby reducing overhead and increasing opportunities to collaborate.)
    • Are there opportunities to pursue shared funding? (Opening up the door to additional funding opportunities because we demonstrate a thoughtful multi-partner design for decreasing duplication and meeting gaps in services.)
  1. Engaging funders as partners to address an unmet need by demonstrating that need through data and testimonials.
  1. Developing strategies to engage the public, not only increase awareness of the issue, but to secure the commitment of key policymakers who can help uncover new funding resources or shape policy that will benefit the target population.

 

This plan should also make the case for additional resources by showing decision-makers that early intervention could ultimately result in long term cost savings to your community. Including these elements in an achievable, collaborative action plan will not only benefit the system, but can demonstrate to your funders how your organization contributes to system sustainability.

 

Resources for Big Picture Sustainability

A Systems Improvement Training and Technical Assistance Project Toolkit (developed by the Washington D.C. based Institute of Technical Leadership) addresses the challenges experienced by innovative collaborative demonstration projects attempting to scale up and become integrated in larger systems of support for families and children. The Toolkit offers strategies and resources to help sustain emerging collaborative efforts so that they can meaningfully impact the larger system.

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This is going to take us 10 years! What do we tell our funders now?

Many things worth doing cannot be done quickly. Changing public policy systems, building communities, tackling complex social issues, and advocating for meaningful change are not things one undertakes and completes in a single year, three years, or sometimes even in ten years.

Yet, at the same time, we all have funders and our funders need to know that they are funding organizations that are making a meaningful difference – not ten years from now, but today. Not to mention that it would also be helpful to our long-term efforts if we could figure out whether today’s activities are making a difference for tomorrow.

This is where strategic roadmaps and interim outcomes come in. Yes, the terms are full of jargon, but they are worth learning because they can help you and your funder understand whether what you are doing really does matter and help you do good, even better.

Is what we’re doing today going to matter tomorrow?

Strategic Roadmaps are a powerful tool for taking a complex problem and breaking down the solution into a series of meaningful, smaller changes on the way to the big success. They  are similar to Theories of Change, but provide a higher level of detail and focus on interim outcomes. At Spark, we use them for evaluation (where the concept first came from), but we’ve also adapted them to be a strategic planning tool.

The first thing you figure out in a roadmapping process is where you’re going to end up. It’s a lot like a vision statement, only you want to be very concrete and realistic. Don’t say that you’re going to eliminate obesity. Say  you will increase the number of residents who meet recommendations for physical activity, fruit and veggie consumption, and caloric intake (this is straight from the Stapleton Foundation’s be well initiative roadmap). Or, instead of saying you’ll cause all schools to purchase all of their food locally through farm to school programs, say you’ll cause collaborative, sustainable implementation of farm to school statewide (this one is from the Colorado Farm to School Task Force’s roadmap).

Once you know where you are going to end up, you map it backwards – asking yourself step by step what has to be in place to get to where you want to go. That’s how you know whether what you’re doing today will directly contribute to achieving the end of your road – because you can visually show the road you’re on and how one thing steadily leads to another until lasting and meaningful change is achieved.

For more information about what a Strategic Roadmap process looks like, visit our blog on How Groups Become Change Agents.

How do we know if what we’re doing is getting us to where we want to go?

Here is where the concept of interim outcomes comes in. When you know where you want to end up, and you know what has to happen each step of the way to get there, you’ve just defined your interim outcomes. Let’s back out of that jargon for a minute though and instead just talk about two things: control and influence.

The things you do every day – the meetings you host, the number of people you screen, the trainings you convene, the legislators you talk to – these are things within your control. Sometimes we get into the habit of just reporting to our stakeholders and funders a laundry list of things we did, things in our control. We might tell people we talked to 10 legislators, recruited 50 people to attend our meeting, or screened 200 residents. Careful though, those aren’t outcomes! They are just counts that tell you what you’ve been up to.

Then there are all the things we can’t control, but that really matter to us – the things we are constantly trying to influence. They are things like how a legislator votes on a specific bill, what the 50 people at our meeting think about the issue when they walk out the door and the actions they commit to taking, or the number of people we screened who followed up with their doctors. We work hard to cause these things to happen, but at the end of the day, we can only hope to influence them. We aren’t inside people’s minds, we can’t force these changes and actions to occur. This is what makes them our outcomes.

So what is an interim outcome? It is an outcome that is along your road. You need it to happen in order to get a little closer to that big, long-term goal. But it isn’t something you can control. Are you trying to increase the number of residents meet recommendations for physical activity, fruit and veggie consumption, and caloric intake? Your interim outcomes might include completion rates of residents attending your programs, increases in physical activity level, or increases in knowledge about healthy eating and active living. These are things that matter, but they don’t matter in and of themselves, they matter because they are supposed to be leading to the end of your road.

Strategic roadmaps and interim outcomes sound great, but how do I use these with my funders?

If you know your end of the road and your interim outcomes, you are in a great position to sit down with your funders and talk to them about why your work really matters. You can also work with them to agree on which interim outcomes are achievable within their funding period and could be part of an evaluation. When you’re having this conversation, don’t forget to include capacity building as an important outcome they should support and evaluation should capture. If you are trying to do something that will take three, five, or ten years, you need to build the organizational capacity to do the work for the long haul. Here are some quick tips for talking with your funder about long-term change:

  • Bring a visual of your roadmap and walk through it with them in person. They may challenge you on assumptions you’ve made about why one thing will lead to another, but they will respect the effort you took to map out how you are getting from where you are today to a big and meaningful change.
  • Circle the outcomes on your visual that you think can be achieved during the funding cycle. Talk to the funder about why those are realistic in the timeframe, but other interim outcomes are not.
  • Focus the conversation on the outcomes you’ll achieve, not the activities you’ll use. Anyone can implement a community meeting or host a training. Stand out by showing the funder you are an organization who really knows how to cause change in an individual or a community.
  • Don’t go into the conversation alone. Instead, bring your community leaders, volunteers, advocates, or organizational partners to reinforce their belief that the road you are on will make a difference. We don’t try to cause meaningful changes alone, so there is no reason to be by ourselves when we attempt to secure the funding we need to make a difference.

 

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Braiding Your Funds: Tips and Tools

Braided funding is when you use multiple funding streams utilized to pay for all of the services needed by a given population, with careful accounting of how every dollar from each funding stream is spent. This blog will introduce you to a “Coordinated Finance Plan” – a tool for designing a braided funding approach that is streamlined and audit-ready.

What is a Coordinated Financing Plan?

A coordinated financing plan is:

  • A tool for talking with your funders so they can clearly understand the design of your braided system.
  • A tool to help your programmatic staff, your fiscal staff, and your board understand how and why each decision is being made.
  • A method for increasing the likelihood that every dollar of your funding is being used appropriately, including that blending or braiding multiple funding streams will not result in supplanting.

 

Part 1: The Program Budget and Cost Allocation

The program budget is the easy part. But what’s a cost allocation plan? This is the tool that will bring your budget to life and turn it into a braided or blended model.

  • If you are blending your funding, the cost allocation plan is a static budget that you can set in advance. Your priority will be to make sure you track sufficient information on eligibility and outcomes to report back to your funders.
  • If you are braiding your funding, the cost allocation plan is a flexible budget and accounting tool that tracks spend down across your funding streams.

Cost allocation plans in a braiding context are living documents that begin with estimations, but help you keep track of how you can flexibly allocate resources to meet monthly needs, based on eligible populations and services. In essence, the cost allocation plan provides you with upfront information to ensure you can cover all your expenses across all your funding streams and ongoing information on the progress of spending down your funding streams.

Want a tool to help you design your cost allocation plan? Go to: http://sparkpolicy.com/fiscalguides.htm#Guide1. Our team also has experience helping with this, so feel free to give us a call: 303-455-1740.

 

What does a Front Door/Back Door have to do with finances?

Just as in a grocery store, your program has a door people come through on their way in, and another one they exit on the way out. In a program, that backdoor is also where decisions are documented about the finances will be spent. Let’s break this down:

Front Door


At the Front Door, you will be identifying how eligibility and allowability are determined.

  • Eligibility refers to the clients who will be eligible for some or all of the services provided by your blended or braided model.
  • Allowability refers to the services that each client will be allowed to receive, based on their eligibility.

Questions to answer when you design the front door of your program include things like:

  • Who is responsible for determining eligibility? In other words, who has the tools and authority to decide whether a client should be accepted in your program?
  • Who is responsible for determining allowability? In other words, who has the tools and authority to decide which services are options for a new client in your program?
  • What is the protocol for turning clients away? In other words, what referrals or other supports can you offer as you reject a client who does not meet your criteria for eligibility?
  • How will you document eligibility and allowability? Where will the documentation live and when and how will it be used to make decisions along the way?

 

Back Door


At the Back Door, you will be identifying how allocation of costs to funding streams will be determined. The Back Door is responsible for making sure that all allowable services are paid for by appropriate funding streams, with appropriate services as defined by the eligibility and allowability of the clients. Additionally, the Back Door is responsible for maintaining appropriate spend-down across the funding streams, using a protocol designed to guide them. The protocol should also help the Back Door staff understand which funding streams to use first.

Some of the questions to answer when you design the back door of your program include things like:

  • Which funding streams need to be spent down steadily?
  • Which funding streams should be used whenever possible?
  • Which funding stream should be used as a last resort?

 

Keeping Track

Yes, this is where we discuss everyone’s favorite thing to do – document, document, document. While tracking how time and money are used is not a fun thing, it also doesn’t have to be as painful as we sometimes make it.

One of the critical components to a successful braided model, particularly a model that includes funding streams that fall under the federal OMB Circular A-87 (see Appendix A of the fiscal guide, link below), is to track personnel time by eligible populations/allowable services. To ensure the Back Door has enough information to allocate staff time to appropriate funding streams, all of the staff paid for through the braided model should keep time sheets that indicate the case ID of the client served and time spent on that client. If a staff person engages in non-service delivery activities, the staff person should also have a place on their timesheet for the major categories of activities, defined by what is allowable across the funding streams.

While you need this type of tracking system, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to create a system that is:

(1) As simple as you can get away with, only collecting exactly what you need to know. For example, if staff is tracking time spent, have them use a checkbox of options instead of open-ended notes. This simplifies for both the staff tracking time and the staff using the information for billing purposes.
(2) As flexible as possible, not programmed into rigid databases and complex accounting systems. Funding streams can and will change over time, whether due to your existing funding streams changing regulations or new funding streams being secured. Don’t create a system that is difficult to change over time. Be flexible, use easy to adapt tools like Excel, Word, Adobe Forms, Google Forms, etc.

You also need to keep track of your money – setting up your financial systems to have the same categories as those that your funders require you to report. Make sure your financial system aligns as closely as possible with your Front Door and Back Door plans. Don’t create any extra complexity in anything you do.

Want more information on how to build your front door and back door models and keep track? Visit: http://sparkpolicy.com/fiscalguides.htm#Guide1.

 

Align, Simplify, and be Flexible.

If you take nothing else away from this blog, remember these three terms and apply them to how you braid multiple funding streams. Align activities throughout your program, from how program staff check and document eligibility to how financial staff report to funders and track in their accounting systems. This will simplify everyone’s experience, from program staff to administrators to support staff. Don’t use rigid tools that make it hard to change and adapt with time – always remain flexible.