Making funded projects more sustainable

Shift your short term thinking

Having dedicated my career to the third sector and social enterprise sector, I have seen a lot of funding pass through either the organisation I’ve worked at or organisations around me. 

These projects have been funded by a variety of grants, small local ones from the local city, larger ones from national foundations or bodies, and others valued at 6 or 7 figures from European or International funds.

I cannot deny the impact that the majority of these projects have had is excellent, however one thing that always seems to be severely lacking is the sustainability of each project. The question of sustainability is always on the funding application, usually towards the end, however the weight it carries changes from case to case. 

Often the mentality on these projects is limited to the project life cycle, it is seen as part of the organisation yet doesn’t fully connect to the before or after. Most probably if there is no funding for after, the project will cease to exist, and the impact of all that money spent on developing x or y, will also stop.

What do you write in that box for sustainability? How often do you actually do what you write? Isn’t all that money a missed opportunity for lasting change?

Sustainability hacks

We need a new mindset when running these projects. We need to look at each part of it and think how can we make it last for longer. There are limitations which I will look at after, but for now, here are a few hacks.

Leaflets, posters, banners, t-shirts…

Visibility is always important for the funders, so you are often faced with all these rules of what has to be put on any printed material. Despite these we can still design things in a smarter way. 

Think of all those banners you have stacked away somewhere, never to be used again but at the same time you’re unsure what to do with them. The project is over, the event has ended and they’re useless. 

Why so? On those banners you put a project name that’s over, a date that has passed or something related to that short-term project that is finished. 

Next time you design, don’t include a date, focus on text that is timeless, and if there is a project name that must be on there, make sure it’s smaller than your organisation name. Suddenly the banner can be used at any event to promote you.

The same with leaflets, instead of just focusing on the project, you can make it generic enough that can be still read, used and distributed afterwards.  

Your online media can be used to promote events or time limited projects, or short term media such as newspapers, flyers and posters.

Websites + social media

Most projects demand a website, so organisations go out, buy a domain name and some hosting, spend money on design and have a new website built from scratch. Two years later and the only thing that remains are the deliverables. They might also disappear once the hosting runs out, or are lost when the domain name expires.

Instead of this, you can buy a domain name that redirects to an existing website of the organisation, or a subdomain. Your IT guys will know how to do this if you don’t. This means all the information and deliverables will be stored on your central hosting and be on your main website, which you won’t let die like a project site, unless your nonprofit folds.

Social media provides some further problems, because posting needs to be regular and consistent. Creating new social media profiles for a project is often a necessity, but again they aren’t maintained once the marketing manager has gone, unless the project itself has sustainability. 

Think about using hashtags to identify a project, rather than a page itself, and also think about groups which spark more conversation than a page which is fairly passive.

Deliverables — toolkits, handbooks etc.

Quite often there is some printed material that is made during these projects. Whatever they are, arrive in a box and are put in a cupboard, sometimes remembered when there are fairs or conferences where they can be shared. 

Just with the materials above, it’s good to keep them as time neutral as possible. Where references are made to something that might be time limited, you could think about putting in links to more generic things instead. 

For example, if you want to talk about an upcoming conference, you can talk about it being annual, if you want to talk about some legislation, you can encourage the reader to check a website for updates or changes to that legislation.

Then when it comes to using them, first of all make sure they are digitally available on your website for downloading, and that they’re clearly listed and easy to find. People might search for something similar and come across the materials. 

In terms of all the material, make sure you’ve factored in the cost in the application for posting them, then you can pull together a list of schools, nonprofits, government agencies, doctors surgeries — wherever your resources might be useful — and send them out. Create a pack of these materials for you to take to conferences, meetings or other projects, so you can simply pick them up and go, instead of rifling through the cupboards.

Limitations

Staff

One of the dilemmas of being in the project cycle is that you’re always looking for the next piece of funding to keep your staff employed. This is similar to how private companies are always looking for more customers to keep the business going. But only similar, because as we know, the competition for funds has increased as the funds have decreased, plus the time before applying and getting results can vary drastically. 

That’s where social enterprise might come in. Is there any way you can use the funds to develop a service or product that can be sold on the market? When you are creating these materials, are you looking at it to tick an output box, or to fill a need?

For example, in the project you hired a video maker to create YouTube tutorials about a subject. Could you create additional videos or masterclasses outside the project outline that could be monetised?

Or say the project funds enabled you to buy some equipment, make sure you buy something that might be of use to others. Sports equipment or tech could be rented out or fire ovens and packaging equipment used to produce something different.

Finally, if you receive project funding for something that is meant to become sustainable, say production of gifts or sewing machines for upcycling, make sure you don’t overemploy and set yourself up for failure. Be lean, and be realistic.

Measuring beyond project life

The final limitation we come across is the ability to measure the impact long term. This is normally for one simple reason — it’s not something we are measuring within our organisation and therefore no-one is responsible for it. Perhaps because we don’t have the finances for it, or perhaps we don’t all have the skillset within the organisation.

However it’s very important. It demonstrates to future funders that you do actually care about sustainability and impact. It demonstrates that you are committed to showing how everything you do, creates positive and lasting change, which should complement your theory of change.


By working smarter with the funds we can access, we can slowly shift away from the reliability of funding some organisations currently have. We can relieve those cash flow problems as we wait for tranches to be released, and we can develop materials because they are truly needed. 

All of the above might not apply to your organisation, however there are always bits that we can take, implement and improve how we work and save time, money or waste long-term.

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