What’s often the last question on a grant application, I argue, should be the first. It usually goes something like, “How will you sustain the program once the grant ends?” To be truthful, most of us just hope we can find another grant.
My good friend, Richard, who leads a church-based nonprofit, has sworn off grants. “Grants are addicting,” he says. “You have to break the addiction.”
Before completing a grant request, one that your program or even your entire nonprofit will come to depend on as its lifeline, Richard suggests you drive around your community or look through your files to see what happens when the grant funding runs out. You might encounter a weed-filled playground, a boarded-up building, a faded sign, or dusty folders of reports, minutes, and project lists. These are all that remains of the shining objects that once meant an infusion of resources to meet the needs of a community that just happened to align with a funder’s priorities. Then, the funding ended.
Richard believes that grants not only have an addictive quality, but they can stand in the way of the community doing what it needs to do for itself, fostering a form of dependency that is unhealthy and disempowering. When funding ends, too often there is no sustainability. Unless you find another grant or get an extension, most grant-funded activities do not transition to a private-sector solution, do not lend themselves to fee-for-service, and often cannot solve the problem within the timeframe of the grant funding cycle. Because many grants address problems that require playing a long game, the well-worn analogy of “a marathon, not a sprint” comes to mind. A lot of grant funding is aimed at results within the timeframe of the grant cycle and a plan for weaning the nonprofit off the funding, so the funder can move on to another priority.
I think it is time to think about sustainability differently and to go through a different process before applying for a grant, starting with that last question first. Some good questions to ask before applying include:
- How does the funding cycle align with the time it will take to solve the problem?
- What is the history of this particular funder and its commitment to its grantees? Is this a long-game funder, or one that is inclined to engage in sprints vs. marathon funding?
- Where is your organization in its evolution?
- How diversified is your funding base?
- Can this funding be used to leverage other funding and to build capacity that takes you to another level of future funding or problem-solving? Can you do this in tandem with satisfying the grant requirements?
- Will this grant, this short-term funding, take your attention away from the broader mission of your organization and starve other organizational functions and projects?
- Will you become too reliant on this funding source, neglecting the development of others? To my friend Richard’s point, will you become addicted?
These can be challenging questions, and ones you might just be inclined to skip as you rush headlong into meeting the application deadline. In fact, you most likely won’t think about them at all until you get to that last question about sustainability in the application packet.
Another facet of sustainability that is often overlooked is, “Whose sustainability are we talking about?” Sustainability of the initiative, sustainability of the nonprofit itself, or sustainability of the solution in the lives of the recipients? Each is a different question. The most important one may be the last, which requires a new twist on the sustainability question. Think of it this way: We work in the healthy eating, active living space. A lot of our programming has focused on introducing movement and healthy foods as strategies for managing and preventing chronic diseases and obesity. These are long-game health challenges, sticky ones that don’t resolve themselves overnight and certainly not within a grant cycle. A lot of funders get weary after a while and want to move on. Many have, leaving those of us working in that space and those suffering from those conditions feeling…unsustained.
My thoughts of late have strayed to a more comprehensive approach to sustainability—not of my organization or my initiative, but of the solutions we are introducing. Are they being institutionalized at the recipient and community level, thus actually changing behaviors? This leads me to a story about my Aunt Ethel Lee, collard greens, and Thanksgiving.
A couple of decades ago, I invited my aunt, then 80 years old, to Thanksgiving dinner, which I decided to prepare entirely on my own. I would not let her in the kitchen, and I did not buy anything prepared. I also planned a full menu, including homemade pies, rolls, and collard greens. My aunt was eyeing the clock and wondering why I didn’t have the greens in the pot and certainly why I didn’t have some pork boiling in the water. As I feverishly worked to finish the dressing and to get the rolls in the oven, my collard greens were still sitting in the sink, all cleaned and ready to sauté. Yes, sauté, not boil in a pot of water with pork. I planned to season them with chicken broth, olive oil, and chopped Vidalia onions. I silently hoped to convert my aunt to this healthier version of her Southern favorite.
After a while, my aunt got up and came into the kitchen. “Honey, there is no way in the world we are going to have collards in an hour.” To her surprise, we did have collards—and within 30 minutes. To my surprise, she loved them. She returned to her home in Baltimore, and for the remaining seven years of her life never boiled pork or collard greens all day. She told all her friends about her 30-minute greens, and some followed suit. I had not only fed her that day, but also introduced her to a healthy eating behavior that was sustained beyond the meal on that Thanksgiving Day.
Whenever I think about sustainability now, I think about the collard greens and my aunt. She had spent her life preparing them in a way that took away a lot of their nutrients and introduced unhealthy elements to a perfectly healthy food. Instead of setting a plate of greens in front of her, I had invited her into the kitchen and demonstrated a new way of preparing them.
I believe we have to use a similar lens when thinking about sustainability. We must shift our focus from just sustaining our programs and our organizations to incorporating sustainability into the program design and outcomes so we leave the recipients of our services in a place where they are able to sustain healthy behavior even when we are no longer there, and the grant funding has ended.
I would like to think what I am proposing is not unique. My epiphany may be related to my ongoing need to keep my organization afloat—so much so that I forget that if I am good at what I do and successful, my grant-funded program will not only respect but empower recipients to embrace long-term sustainability of healthy behaviors. The next phase of grant work, after the grant ends, will be mining further into the problems that confront the community with the same goal: sustainable solutions and behavior, not just my program’s survival. Just like the funder, I can then move on to the next shiny object, or to another problem needing a healthy dose of sustainability.
This brings me back to my friend Richard and his point about the addictive quality of grants and his decision to quit cold turkey. His challenge is slightly different; his take on the situation comes from his worry that the community itself is addicted to the handout. This is also another twist on the sustainability conundrum, a replay of the continuing quest to feed ourselves and stop relying on the handout. He also is looking for homegrown solutions, not those that come from well-meaning outsiders who are intent on fixing his community. It might go something like: “I will not fix my own dinner if you are going to fix it for me. I won’t even figure out how to source the items, nor will I even think about the true cost. And, if the grant program goes away, I will just starve until somebody else comes along to feed me.”
As he and I discussed recently, sustainability has a wide range of dimensions that are deeper than the funder’s money, our dependence on it as program providers, and the needs of our communities. It goes to the heart of what it means to empower people to become their own agents of change, to have vision for what they want for themselves and their communities. It goes to the heart of what it means to be healthy and self-sufficient—individually, as a community, and as an organization.
Viewed through this lens, grants and funder priorities take on a different meaning, and our strategies for dealing with this type of transient funding become quite different. A whole different set of questions emerge to help us truly understand and focus on where the community and our organizations are in their evolution. Taking the time to analyze this last question first might lead you to think about times in your life when you sustained a change in behavior, or even inspired a sustained change in someone else’s behavior. It just might take you back to a memory like the one I had of my aunt, collard greens, and Thanksgiving.
Learning to experience healthy food preparation touched so many aspects of her life: It saved time, it saved money (no need to pay the high cost of fuel for all of that cooking time), it saved health care costs (eating healthy helped her lower her blood pressure and weight), and it improved the quality of her life. Less time in the kitchen and at the doctor’s office meant more time to enjoy life and to spend her dollars on something she enjoyed. She sustained her healthy preparation of greens for the rest of her life. Just think if I could have gotten to her decades before.
If we are to be successful in addressing sustainability, we have to start asking a different set of questions before we apply for the grant. We have to consider the last question first.