Thursday, May 17, 2012

Making A Difference In Your Neighborhood: Focusing on Sustainability

In November 2011, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) released a new tool for communities: "Making a Difference In Your Neighborhood: A Handbook for Using Community Decision-Making to Improve the Lives of Children, Youth and Families." Based on CSSP’s work in communities throughout the past two decades, this handbook provides communities with the “how to” guidance that is needed to begin community change efforts. Over the past few months, we've provided a brief overview of each of the handbook’s chapters and highlighted the information that we believe is critical to building communities that improve outcomes for children and families. 

This week, we spotlight the handbook’s final section, Chapter 5: Focusing on Sustainability.

After your community has used data to identify its needs, agreed on a set of results, and developed an action plan outlining strategies to achieve those desired outcomes, it might seem like the only remaining step is to implement your strategies and refine them, as needed. While carrying out your action plan will take serious effort from all of the partners involved, it’s also crucial that your community begin to think about the sustainability of your efforts. Sustainability refers to your community's ability to maintain or expand the impact of your initiative over time and in the face of changing social, political, and fiscal conditions. 

Thinking about sustainability before you’ve even had a chance to fully implement your agreed upon strategies might seem a bit out of place. How could you think about sustaining something that isn’t yet fully developed? Shouldn’t you focus first on making progress in improving some of your key outcomes before thinking about how you will continue this work several years down the road? The sense of urgency that is felt by many communities doing this type of work is both understandable and admirable. But what good will the enormous effort and resources you and your partners put into developing mutually accountable relationships, creating a results agenda, and drafting an action plan be if your work can't continue long enough to really move the needle on your selected indicators?

While you can't be expected to anticipate every obstacle that your community will face on the road to a better future for all children and families, there are some basic questions you need to explore even as you're just beginning to forge your partnerships and start the actual work. How stable are your current funding sources and will they be able to provide you with the resources you need to sustain or expand your work over time? What is the mix of public and private funding sources your community is accessing, and does this combination of resources give you the flexibility you need to put resources where they will have the most impact? Are there new funding opportunities you could apply for or could you reorganize your current resources to achieve greater impact? These and other questions can serve as a starting point in the development of a sustainable financing plan for your community.

In addition to developing a financing plan, you can help to improve the sustainability of your community change effort by developing strategic partnerships with key champions who will help to draw attention and new resources to your work. Examples of champions include board members, politicians, and other people who can assist you not only by leveraging their networks to obtain additional resources but also by influencing laws and institutional practices that affect your work.

Lastly, it's important to remember that funding isn't the only thing that's needed to sustain or scale your work over time. Public policy structures the environment in which your community acts and can be influenced to become more supportive of your efforts. As mentioned above, strategic partners can help to bring about desired changes in public policies. They are not, however, the only people who can influence laws and rules to be in your favor. Making your community's work truly sustainable also requires that you build the capacity of your stakeholders to advocate for themselves.

For more information and strategies on assessing and enhancing the sustainability of your community’s efforts, as well as related resources such as our fiscal mapping tool, please click here.

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