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More and more funding agencies are requiring “Sustainability” as part of proposal submission and they give points to the proposal if you successfully describe it. But, sustainability in the grant world is not being green, developing clean energy or reducing global warming.

The classic, general definition of this type of sustainability is to "meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (Merriam-Webster's College Dictionary, 1987). Robert Gillman, editor of the In Context magazine, extends this goal-oriented definition by stating "sustainability refers to a very old and simple concept (The Golden Rule) ... do unto future generations as you would have them do unto you."

NO, the definition of sustainability within the context of proposal submission is best summed up in a recent California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Request for Proposal (RFP).

“Section 5. Sustainability (20 Points). Indicate potential sustainability strategies once the support from the Economic and Workforce Development program is no longer available. Indicate source of Cash or In-Kind by industry, college, or other (private, non-profit, government, etc.).”

Historically, funding agencies alluded to the fact of maintaining or sustaining the project after their funding ran out was a preferred requirement of the grant. The classic response from the recipient organization would be to continue the project, subject to availability of additional funding, from private foundations, corporations or local government and perhaps charge a sliding scale fee for service in future years of the project to continue maintaining it.

This no longer is the case with grant funders. They want to see actual dollar match or in-kind contribution amount listed on either their matching budget forms or in your support letters. From a Federal audit standpoint, you have to retain project files for a three year period after funding ceases. This means, if you stated in your proposal that you would sustain the project after the funding ended, you better have documentation to support that claim, otherwise the government funding agency can come after your institution to reimburse them for those promised matches.

Funding Central suggests the following approach on its webpage, Life after a grant—the exit strategy.

What is an exit strategy?

Grants are fixed-term—which means they always come to an end. … Some funders will consider applications to continue activity after the original grant ends. But very often a grant has been used to undertake an activity which you’d like to continue – so what can you do?

If you suspect your project will need to continue after the period for which you are seeking (or have) grant funding, then you need to think about an exit strategy—a plan that enables the activity to find alternative ways to achieve its objectives, or alternative resources to deliver its activities.

What are my options?

There are 2 main ways to approach an Exit Strategy. You can either find:

  • an alternative way to achieve your objectives that costs less, or,
  • an alternative means to fund your activity

or, even combine both approaches.

When do I start thinking about an exit strategy?

Whether you plan to use alternative means or an alternative approach to sustain your activity, you need to think about and prepare your exit strategy from the start.

Increasingly, funders may ask about your exit strategy as part of the application process and prefer to support those projects which have a realistic plan about how they might continue their activity after the grant ends.

Equally, many funders will consider to supporting costs for an exit strategy as part of the main project. For example, a project application might include the costs to produce an external evaluation report about your project and have this designed and published professionally to use as a brochure to support fundraising or tendering.

So, what are some other strategies for maintaining sustainability or developing an exit strategy after project funding ends?

Workforce OneMargaret Lamb, in the April 13, 2011 Workforce3One eNewsletter has developed a toolkit of sustainability materials:

This toolkit is designed to help users prepare for organizing and developing sustainability plans, once the grant funds end for a particular project or initiative. It includes materials highlighting potential strategies, promising practices, key questions, guides and tips. There's even an interactive Planning Guide that prompts the user with sustainability-planning questions, and lets you type your answers onscreen for printing or pasting to your own Sustainability Planning documents. All these resources encourage using creative approaches to maximize vision, goals, and resources beyond the Federal investment.

 Within the sustainability toolkit are related references and resources that include:

These have excellent examples and case-study models to review and see if they can be adapted to your particular sustainability requirements for your proposal.

Without successfully addressing sustainability through an exit strategy in your proposal, you will likely not be successful in securing a grant. Think creatively, yet be realistic for accountability purposes, and you will have a winning grant proposal that will live on after the grant funding ends.<>