You’ve heard the term “sustainability,” but have you thought about it outside of the environmental context? There are many ways in which social change programs can be unsustainable. Programs can be designed without a community’s real capacity, interest, or needs in mind. They can provide expensive and unfamiliar tools that community members don’t know how to use or fix on their own. Programs can give away resources for free without consideration for the potential long-term negative effects. They can be carried out without the proper processes or documentation in place that would ensure continuity in the event of staff or user turnover. Programs can also be managed without a financially sustainable model.
My main goal as a social enterprise fellow working with a low-income private school in Hyderabad is to build sustainable programs. Beyond my theoretical affinity towards sustainable development, more practically, I am only working with the school for under 10-months, and there will be no fellow or organization continuing my work next year. This means that every program I design or implement must be feasible long after my involvement.
Here are a few ways I’ve tried to make programs sustainable, and some of the potential problems with sustainability.
Partnerships. There is no justification for reinventing the wheel if there are already great organizations implementing similar projects. Partnerships help organizations reach new communities and ensure long-term participation in the community. One challenge that can arise in partnerships is that they can take a long time to research and develop, and typically require more financial resources than a do-it-yourself program. In addition, partners don’t always align with one’s own vision or expectations.
Community buy-in. A common solution to the issue of community buy-in is to have communities pay nominal fees. However, that doesn’t make a program sustainable if the community doesn’t really need or want the product or service. And it doesn’t account for the broader stakeholder buy-in beyond the community also necessary for long-term sustainability. Understanding a community is the first important step towards community buy-in for a program. Spend time observing, researching, speaking, and working with the community before designing programs, and continue to iterate those programs during implementation for a better fit. It’s also important to have the community play a major role so that, from the beginning, they have ownership of what is really theirs. Language barriers complicate community-focused work, and it can also be difficult to determine through observations, conversations, and even pilots alone if the community will really use the programs in the long run.
Existing resources. Every community has access to existing resources, so the question is, how can one maximize the use of what they already own? There are many benefits to using existing resources. For one, utilization of those resources means less training time because the community is already familiar with the resource. Moreover, it’s inherently more sustainable because it requires little to no additional funding. Another way to take advantage of existing resources is to identify positive deviants in the community—individuals who have unknowingly solved a problem under the same resource constraints. Of course, existing resources, such as older technologies, may never be as impactful as newer resources. Relying on existing resources also requires the community to account the potential quicker degradation of those resources.
Root causes. Instead of putting a band-aid on a problem, it’s better to attempt to identify and address the wound more directly. This can be done by always asking “why?” about a problem. Only addressing the first answer to a why question would just mask a more deep-rooted issue. Identifying the root cause should really be the basis for the theory of change in any long-term social interventions. Unfortunately, root causes are extremely difficult to recognize, and they take a long time to address. But this mindset helps one stay on the right track when choosing which problems to address.
While I find these strategies helpful, the true impact and sustainability of the work I’m doing won’t be apparent for years. I want to design and implement sustainable programs, but sustainability is challenging and takes more time and resources than I often have at my disposal. My current struggle is where to draw the line between implementing only sustainable programs versus implementing programs that could still have a positive impact, but may not be sustainable. Does sustainability trump all? Or is it worth implementing a program that I know cannot be carried forward, or may fail after I leave? And what is the best strategy for figuring out how to create the most change in a given timeframe?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I think that there is one right answer. For now, I’m going to keep asking “why” and continue thinking about the sustainability and potential positive and negative long-term impact of every idea and project.
What do you think? How do you make programs sustainable, and should sustainability always be the foremost goal?