It is the sometimes dreaded, but ever present, S word that is essential for developing and maintaining impact – sustainability. Ensuring sustainability is now more important than ever as organizations everywhere pivot to address the needs of children and families amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people think about sustainability as an end goal – if my program, service, or resource is successful, how will I sustain implementation so that it continues to help children prosper? Or even more frightening, what if it has an impact, but I cannot secure the financial resources to support implementation?
However, what if we are going about this incorrectly? What if sustainability is a process, and not an end point?
Sustainability as an Ongoing Process
Jan Correa and Denise DeMaio from En Pointe Consulting posed those questions to program leaders from Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health (the Office) during a recent site visit. The goal of the site visit was for program leaders to learn about trends from the field and explore how they can enhance sustainability efforts. We kicked off the day with a program leaders meeting, which is a regular convening of team members leading the design, implementation, and evaluation of community health initiatives affiliated with Connecticut Children’s. During this time, Jan and Denise facilitated a conversation with program leaders regarding their experiences with strategic planning, sustainability, securing resources, and building relationships with other organizations. They also shared seven observations from the field regarding sustainability, two of which resonated heavily with our program leaders:
- Sustainability is a process that requires organizations to remain current.
- Resources are not simply financial.
Program leaders then had the opportunity to connect with Jan and Denise individually to further explore how to leverage these observations within their programs and discuss additional opportunities that may exist to ensure sustainability.
As the social innovation leader for the Office and manager of the Childhood Prosperity Lab (the Lab), I had the opportunity to help plan the site visit and participate in a targeted conversation regarding how the Lab can best support changemakers in achieving sustainability. During the meeting, we focused our discussion on how the Lab can effectively build the capacity of innovative strategies that promote child health, development, and well-being, as well as help organizations nurture an organizational culture of innovation.
How the Lab Supports Changemakers to Achieve Sustainability
The Lab encourages changemakers to:
- think about their work in the context of the broader system of services and resources supporting children and families, rather than in isolation; and
- as a strategy evolving on a continuum, as opposed to as a tactic working toward a static end goal.
Both of these strategies encourage changemakers to embrace the two observations highlighted earlier – that sustainability is a process requiring organizations to remain current and that resources are not simply financial. These observations are particularly beneficial to organizations as they anticipate and manage the multi-faceted impacts of COVID-19.
For some changemakers, these strategies and observations make sense and they readily embrace them, while for others, they represent a new way of thinking that requires a shift in culture, mindset, and processes that can be challenging. Regardless of their response, the Lab is prepared to support changemakers so that together, we can help all children prosper.
The Lab collaborates with changemakers to advance innovative strategies as they pursue their desired level of impact. First, we engage changemakers in a mastermind session to learn about the innovative strategy and their efforts to date. The changemaker provides an overview of the strategy to a panel of advisors and then participates in a semi-structured conversation focused on key content areas, including model, evidence and evaluation, stakeholder engagement, resources, communications, quality improvement and reflection, and a systems and policy approach. Next, the Lab compiles and shares feedback and recommendations from advisors. The Lab and changemaker then work together to develop a customized plan to implement the recommendations and advance the innovation toward the changemaker’s desired level of impact.
In doing our work, the Lab facilitates targeted conversations about the innovation’s model and resources needed to support planning, implementation, and evaluation. The Lab encourages changemakers to define their innovations by identifying core components, which are the internal conditions or activities that are the essence of an innovative strategy, and structural requirements, which are the external conditions required for successful implementation. Read Good Program Definition and Defining Innovations to Foster Success to learn more about these concepts. Defining innovative strategies in this way provides enough specificity for us to operationalize the work, but enough flexibility to allow for community context. This approach also allows organizations to modify and pivot their approach in order to remain current and responsive, especially in uncertain times such as we now face, while not losing sight of their objective and goals.
Also during this process, we challenge changemakers to not only think about resources in terms of finances and funding, but instead to think about resources more holistically by identifying what is needed to support implementation and evaluation. We also encourage changemakers to think about the resources that they currently have access to and the additional resources they will need to access in order to reach their desired level of impact. In addition, we ideate strategies to help secure those resources, which could include but are not limited to skills, knowledge, expertise, human capital/staff, and technology.
Pivoting to Ensure Sustainability in Challenging Times
As organizations work to pivot their approaches to continue to meet the needs of children and families during COVID-19 or innovate new strategies to meet the evolving needs of families, En Pointe’s lessons from the field and the Lab’s strategies stand true. We need to define innovative strategies in way that allows them to remain current and responsive. We also need to think about resources holistically and comprehensively in order to sustain efforts and continue to meet the evolving needs of children and families.
Organizations do not have to do this work on their own. The Lab is here as a resource to help organizations and changemakers achieve sustainability with their new strategies and innovations, so they can achieve their goals and reach their maximum level of impact.
Are you developing, testing, or scaling strategies that benefit children, strengthen families, or support communities? We want to connect with you. Send us an email at ChildhoodProsperityLab@ConnecticutChildrens.org. Tell us how you are promoting childhood prosperity during COVID-19 and let us know how we can best help you to help children flourish, thrive, and succeed.
Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH, is the program manager for the Childhood Prosperity Lab, which is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.
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