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Importance of Sustainability Planning for Networks and Coalitions

As with most programming, sustainability of a network is a topic that should be discussed early and often among key partners. It is for this reason that networks will benefit from developing a sustainability plan. A sustainability plan is a roadmap for achieving long-term goals and documents strategies to continue successful programs, activities, and partnerships. For more information, see Rural Community Health Toolkit: Planning for Sustainability of Your Community Health Program.

Having a written formal strategy that network members can follow has been found to be very important for networks' survival once initial funding has run out. Success, though, requires commitment from network members. According to a recent assessment of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Rural Health Network Development Planning Grant program, directors of surviving networks reported a critical feature to their sustainability was being proactive in developing sustainability strategies. It is therefore recommended that networks begin thinking about sustainability as early as possible. Networks will benefit from having well-conceived strategic, business, and operations plans that will inform whatever sustainability strategy or strategies the network chooses to pursue. Another key factor to sustainability is building support with organizations that have both the interest and the wherewithal to provide financial support and expertise.

As part of a network's sustainability plan, discussion should go beyond funding acquisition strategies; it must also consider the internal and external dynamics and the environment in which the network is operating. Some networks may find continued existence of their work unsustainable, for example, if they are unable to affect the change they had intended, and it may make more sense to stop all network activities once initial funding ends.

The Georgia Health Policy Center cites nine elements that organizational entities like networks need to consider in order to position themselves well for a sustainable future. These elements include:

  • Strategic Vision: Does the network have a clearly defined vision for what it would like to achieve and is it shared by all members? How well do the network activities align with the network's vision? (See more information about strategic planning in Module 4)
  • Collaboration: Are all network members and partners involved in planning and implementation of network activities, and are all of them cooperating?
  • Leadership: Is the network leadership successful at leveraging support and resources? How well does leadership understand the relationship between short-term activities and long-term success? How well does leadership uphold the network's shared vision?
  • Communication: How well does the network define perceptions of the network's successes? How effective is information shared among both structured and informal channels of communication?
  • Evaluation and ROI: Does the network have the necessary data infrastructure to effectively monitor and manage what is being implemented, as well as associated impact? Can the network point to specific positive social, economic, and/or health benefits based on the results of its evaluation?
  • Capacity: Does the network have sufficient personnel with adequate skills, knowledge, and experience to carry out the network's work?
  • Efficiency & Effectiveness: Is the network maximizing its available resources to produce optimal results?
  • Relevance and Practicality: Is the network's approach based on a clear understanding of what is needed and appropriate for the environment in which it operates?
  • Resource Diversification: Is the network prepared to utilize different sources of funding to continue its work?

By going through a self-assessment process as part of the sustainability planning process, a network will have a better sense for how well it is meeting a range of variables. Additionally, members and stakeholders will have a better sense of where the network can improve as it pursues sustainability, how ready a network is to pursue sustainability, and what network components and/or activities are worth sustaining — if any.

The Dynamics of Sustainability: A Primer for Rural Health Organization shared results from interviews with past FORHP grantees that have navigated the many issues and conflicts associated with sustainability planning. Former grantees identified three lessons that are important for future grantees to keep in mind as they plan for sustainability:

  1. Provide a program or collaboration that makes a measurable impact
    This lesson speaks to the importance of evaluation and having positive outcomes (for example, changes in health status) and not just outputs (for example, the number of pamphlets distributed or the number of meetings attended). Networks rely on evidence of the impact of their work in order to justify the importance of the network to fellow network members, stakeholders, and funders.
  2. Get past the belief that “more money will come when we need it”
    Very rarely will a network have a funder show up unexpectedly and offer to fund the network and its activities. Developing a sustainable path for a network requires significant time and effort towards building key relationships, communicating the value of what is being accomplished, and ensuring that sustainability strategies follow the network's mission and vision.
  3. Create shared ownership for sustainability
    Sustainability planning requires frequent engagement from all network members and key stakeholders. Not only will this make it more likely to have buy-in from a plurality of network members, but a collective perspective is more useful in maintaining a longer-term vision for the network.