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Rethinking youth program sustainability

Is program sustainability all about money?

Grants can offer new resources and opportunities to youth programs and the communities in which they take place. The Minnesota Sustainable Community Project (MN SCP), funded by the USDA from 2008 to 2013, helped us to create eight new youth programs throughout the state. In these programs, youth developed leadership skills, gained new mastery and expertise in a subject area and made plans to meet their long-term goals in education.

We knew the benefits to these communities could not be fleeting. To sustain them beyond the life of the grant, we worked within a research-backed conceptual framework.

Mancini and Marek's research says that sustainability is not synonymous with securing more funds. Rather, it refers to the capacity of a program to sustain the benefits it provides. They identified seven factors critical to program sustainability:
  • Leadership competence
  • Effective collaboration
  • Understanding the community
  • Demonstrating program results
  • Strategic funding
  • Staff involvement and integration
  • Program responsivity
Using this framework, the MN SCP project staff began planning for sustainability in year one. One of my colleagues explains, "We were able to have those conversations about sustainability really early on and being realistic about 'money's not going to last forever."

One factor critical to the success of our program at an American Indian Magnet School was effective collaboration, which refers to building a broad base of support of community stakeholders. In this case, the school administration, teachers leading the program, community elders and the 4-H youth development program actively supported the program's goals and guiding principles. Each stakeholder was committed to continuing the programs worked together strategically to secure a promise fellow to lead the delivery of program of the program within the school's after school program, while the program still is supported by the larger 4-H organization.

Another critical sustainability element was program responsivity. This refers to ability of a project to adapt programming and meet changing community needs. This essentially means that the program needs to be flexible and not be married to sustaining the precise program activities. For example, we had three programs in Willmar Middle School. However, once the grant ended, there were no longer enough funds to pay for three different program deliverers, so the three groups consolidated, led by one 4-H program coordinator, who now has been able to include this program into her plan of work.

Sustainability is a dynamic concept the goes beyond the mere securement of more funds. What do your sustainability efforts looks like?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)

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  1. Joanna,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post! These are 2 great examples of what a few of these 7 factors really mean. It seems to me it would be really helpful for YD professionals to have a succinct summary of this research with examples that help tell the story. Do you know if something like that exists? ( I didn't yet take the link to this research).
    I wonder if others have thoughts on how we could be more intentional about including these elements as we do program planning? Is the process different if you have a 1 year grant vs. a longer term grant 3-5 years perhaps? Just thinking how this important idea could become a tool we could intentionally think about/use...
    I look fwd to reading more of the research!

  2. Thank you for your post, Anne. A google scholar search for Mancini and Marek will give you many examples the demonstrate these sustainability elements. Their 2004 article (which is linked in this blog entry) really operationalizes each element, which makes it useful to apply in programming.
    You pose great questions about how sustainability efforts might differ depending on the lifespan of the grant. Given that relationships require time to develop, I am sure elements like effective collaboration and understanding the community would need at least a couple of years of nurturing. I too would be interested to see what others say.

  3. Hi Joanna,
    Thanks for the post. I especially appreciated that you noted the importance of allowing the program to be flexible. I have found that we are often too rigid about how programs should be sustained, thinking that the way it was first designed with more investment of resources is the way it should always be offered. This often isn't feasible when switching a program to be more volunteer directed. I think it's key to make sure that you maintain the core outcomes of the program but be adaptive to allow the program to grow and change.

  4. Halo Joanna, greetings,
    i would like to thank you for this article for it has given me new insights on program sustainability.
    Am working on the program dealing with HIV Issues, more specifically i am dealing with youth in providing youth friendly services for young people living with HIV. Am struggling to creating some programs that can be sustainable and benefit them for long term.
    I wish to hear much from you and help me out.


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