Hello! I’m Rebecca from SageFox Consulting Group, and I’d like to start a conversation about measuring sustainability. Many of us work on ambitious projects with long-term impacts that cannot be achieved within the grant period and require sustained grant activities. Projects are often tasked with providing evidence of sustainability but are not given the funding to assess sustainability and impact after grant funding. In five, 10, or 15 years, if someone were to pick up your final report, would they be able to use it to get a baseline understanding of what occurred during the grant, and would they know where to look for evidence of impact and sustainability? Below are some suggestions for documenting “clues” for sustainability:
Relationships are examples of how projects are sustained. You may want to consider documenting evidence of the depth of relationships: are they person-dependent, or has it become a true partnership between entities? Evidence of the depth of relationships is often revealed when a key supporter leaves their position, but the relationship continues. You might also try to distinguish a person from a role. For example, one project I worked on lost the support of a key contact (due to a reorganization) at a federal agency that hosted student interns during the summer. There was enough goodwill and experience, however, continued efforts from the project leadership resulted in more requests for interns than there were students available for.
Documenting how and why the innovation evolves can provide evidence of sustainability. Often the adopter, user, or customer finds their own value in relation to their unique context. Understanding how and why someone adapts the product or process gives great insight into what elements may go on and in what contexts. For example, you might ask users, “What modifications were needed for your context and why?”
In one of my projects, we began with a set of training modules for students, but we found that an online test preparation module for a certification was also valuable. Through a relationship with the testing agency, a revenue stream was developed that also allowed the project to continue classroom work with students.
Institutionalization (adoption of key products or processes by an institution)—often through a dedicated line item in a budget for a previously grant-funded student support position—reflects sustainability. For example, when a grant-funded program found a permanent home at the university by expanding its student-focused training in entrepreneurship to faculty members, it aligned itself with the mission of the department. Asking “What components of this program are critical for the host institution?” is one way to uncover institutionalization opportunities.
Revenue generation is another indicator of customer demand for the product or process. Many projects are reluctant to commercialize their innovations, but commercialization can be part of a sustainability plan. There are even National Science Foundation (NSF) programs to help plan for commercialization (e.g., NSF Innovation Corps), and seed money to get started is also available (e.g., NSF Small Business Innovation Research).
Looking for clues of sustainability often requires a qualitative approach to evaluation through capturing the story from the leadership team and participants. It also involves being on the lookout for unanticipated outcomes in addition to the deliberate avenues a project takes to ensure the longevity of the work.