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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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How Groups become Change Agents

When we think of change agents, we think “individual.” That one person who takes the lead, rejects the status quo, embraces innovation, pushes the boundaries, takes chances, even breaks the rules. Public policy groups, especially the legislatively-mandated Council, Task Force, Blue Ribbon Commission, have hefty mandates and short timeframes – something a change agent would embrace. But how do you find/recruit not just one but a council full of change agents? You don’t. That is, you don’t recruit them – you make them. Or more accurately, they make themselves into change agents through a planning process that is focused on action, necessary conditions, leveraging partners, and identifying the gaps that they then fill.

What Are Strategic Roadmaps?

Many groups undergo strategic planning processes, hold planning retreats, or develop logic models to jump start their work. But nothing beats a strategic roadmap process for creating a dynamic action plan for a group. We, at Spark, call the outcome of the process a “roadmap” because it lays out on one page the “roads” and “turns” that need to be taken to reach the final destination.

In a nutshell, a strategic roadmap is a backwards planning process where we define the big change we want to see and then define smaller changes to lead to that big change. Instead of working backward through what you’ll do, they work backward through how you can influence change. They begin by focusing on the end of the road – the big picture, why we are here goal, which is ambitious but achievable, and then work backwards looking at what is the precondition to this goal (that is, what is immediately prior to getting to this big picture change), and continuing to work backward until you get to smaller changes that are achievable in the near term.

So, why a roadmap? Simply put: So the group doesn’t get lost, take a wrong tour, or inadvertently follow a detour. Keeping your eye on the prize when the prize lies at the end of a complex set of conditions and actions requires keeping all eyes on the road. A Road Map keeps a group focused, tracks progress, and inspires action. In short: Groups → with a Roadmap → become Change Agents.Farm to School Logo

A Group of Change Agents is Born

The Colorado Farm to School Task Force (TF) – a 13 member appointed body enacted by the Colorado legislature in 2010 – is now working in concert with each other to bring “collaborative, sustainable implementation of farm to school statewide.”

How It Started

At their first staffed meeting in February 2011, the TF was guided through a strategic roadmapping process. They:

1. Began by identifying the end of the road or where they wanted the state of Colorado to be in 15 years.

2. Identified the two possible ways (“conditions”) by which farm to school could be implemented – either (1) Colorado schools & producers work directly together or (2) Colorado producers sell to a food hub that sells to schools.

3. Identified the numerous “preconditions” necessary to implement farm to school. Preconditions are the bridges on the road – without them, you cannot get to the other side of the river where your destination lies.

4. Identified exactly which organizations were doing what to build each of the needed bridges.

5. When all the activities were connected to each bridge, the nuts and bolts and even entire girders of a bridge that were missing became apparent. It is the missing parts of the bridges (the “gaps”) that became the work of the Task Force.

Click here to see the FTS Task Force Road Map!

How Much Has Changed?

Kids at lunchThe TF runs like a well-oiled machine. Everyone keeps on task, following the roadmap action step by action step. In its first year, the TF:

  • Provided outreach and technical assistance by request to schools, producers and communities around the state interested in starting or expanding FTS efforts.
  • Supported the development of direct technical assistance to schools and producers, including the Durango Farm to School Conference, which brought together five school districts and 22 local producers to jointly develop bid processes and safety protocols to meet the needs of both schools and producers; the Connecting Local Farms to Schools Conference that brought together more than 200 attendees representing schools, community groups, parents, producers, public health and state agencies to engage in workshops ranging from “getting started” to “ramping up” farm to school efforts; and the Southwest Pre-bid Conference that resulted in four school districts releasing local produce and product bids (three for the first time) and 13 producers successfully landing contracts with the school districts.
  • Released two Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the new USDA “geographic preference” option, which has been a source of confusion in the field. This option allows school food purchasers to give preference to locally grown foods when comparing bids.
  • Released a 50-state legislative scan of farm to school and healthy school food legislation introduced in 2010-2011.
  • Supported pilot projects by helping stakeholders define and refine five food hub projects, and helped locate funding sources and advocate for financial support.
  • Conducted quarterly meetings around the state to learn about the needs of different regions. In 2011, the Task Force met in Pueblo, San Luis Valley, Longmont and Denver.
  • Developed a Farm to School Grant Template to provide assistance to schools to find funding and apply for grants to buy equipment and upgrade kitchen facilities.
  • Provided letters of support and Technical Assistance commitment to farm to school projects.
  • Designed the Farm to School Information Hub Website, a centralized, sustainable information hub that purposefully connects the many different farm to school related resources in one easy to navigate website, including an active and supported peer networking component. The website will include information for producers, schools and communities.
  • Received a major grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to support its 2012 activities.
Fire Up Your Policy Group

If you work with a group or are a member of a group that is not yet “all it can be,” consider whether it would benefit from a strategic roadmapping process to:

1. Have a shared understanding of what is trying to be accomplished.

2. Have a realistic picture of the complex change process needed to reach the long-term goal.

3. Have precise language and action steps to avoid misunderstandings or confusion.

If any or all of these ring true, your group may very well need its own roadmap! For more information, visit www.sparkpolicy.com.

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