Dave Odom: How do I make my program sustainable?

Unsplash / Chu Tai

Planning for the future is not primarily about trimming costs or adding a bit of revenue. A strategic sustainability plan involves regularly revisiting foundational questions about your program’s purpose and impact.

Sustaining a program is a heavy burden. The program may bring in less money than it spends. Some constituents may question its worth. Additional funding sources when grant money runs out can be difficult to find. Plus, sustaining a program means meeting people’s future needs, which can be hard to predict.

The urgency of discerning how to sustain a program forces leaders to examine every detail: Could we charge more? Do we have to serve lunch? Could the program be shorter? What elements are costing us the most? Could we trim those larger expenses?

If such adjustments to revenue and expenses are possible, congratulations! But for many Christian leaders, the overall budgets of our organizations are so constrained that the minor adjustments we are free to make might not result in sustainability. In these cases, assuring the long-term effects of a program requires revisiting foundational questions about its purpose and impact. For example:

  • What constituents does this program serve? What needs does it meet?
  • How do constituents say this program helps them? How does it change the way they do their work?
  • Why is the program important to the organization offering it? How it is aligned with the organization’s mission?

These questions must be answered at an institutional level, but they are individual questions, too. Why is this program important to you? How is it related to your vocation and the vocations of your key program leaders? Would the program fall apart if you or another team member left? Does the institution’s senior leadership support this program, now and into the future?

With a clearer sense of the program’s purpose and impact, it is time to envision and plan various scenarios. I find it helpful to peel apart the question of sustainability by looking at what is required to sustain specific program elements. For example:

  • What is required to continue the most significant and high-impact activities?
  • What is required to continue the jobs the program created?
  • What is required to support constituents and outside partners?
  • What is required to sustain the ways of thinking, feeling and working the program is encouraging?

Almost 20 years ago, I was part of a grant-funded program to support pastors in my newly formed denomination. As the team evaluator, I was responsible for stepping back from the day-to-day and helping articulate the difference the program was making.

Initially, our focus was on how the program’s activities -- the peer groups, sabbaticals and seminary graduate residencies -- were affecting the people involved. Participants reported that the activities were life changing, but the donors we pursued were not excited about funding the program.

After a few years of asking questions, our team realized that sustainability was less about the activities of the program and more about a shift in mindset for congregations and clergy.

Our new denomination had inherited from its predecessors a view of pastors as replaceable parts. When a congregation felt disappointed with any aspect of the pastor’s leadership, the easiest adjustment was to simply replace the pastor. That denomination had large seminaries that graduated hundreds of pastors each year. There were plenty of available replacements.

We began to see our program’s goal as encouraging congregations to see pastors as renewable and renewing. The metaphor we used was that a congregation was a garden and the pastor a plant that both needed and provided nurture. The program would be sustainable, we realized, when congregations began changing policies to grant sabbatical time and increase continuing education funds. We hoped to see clergy forming peer groups without the encouragement of money.

In our case, sustainability was not determined by fundraising. We were hoping to see shifts in behavior and priorities -- a purpose we recognized only by asking questions about impact from multiple points of view.

In this story, I have the advantage of 20 years of hindsight. Developing sustainability plans seldom has such a clean narrative. In the early years of a program, I have benefited from using these first, foundational sets of questions to gain information and then formulate a few scenarios. In the case of my denominational pastor program, those scenarios might include:

  • What if every pastor had a mentor? How would pastors need to be supported to engage in such relationships? Who would provide such support, and what would the cost be?
  • What if every congregation provided sabbaticals to its pastors? What conditions would be required to support such time away? Who would need to support such efforts, and what would that look like?

Each “what if” question generates a plan. Those planning for sustainability are working to encourage the desired conditions while also watching for evidence that they are being achieved. Over time, the individual scenarios begin to come alive. Eventually, the scenarios can be combined to create a single plan for sustainability.

Sustainability planning requires intentional time and space. I recommend setting aside time at least twice a year to update answers to key questions and revisit the scenarios being considered.

Don’t do this work alone; sustainability is a team activity. Program leaders are most often responsible for raising the questions, gathering information and suggesting alternatives. But the work of future planning necessarily includes your team, participants and stakeholders. The more a program can engage its constituents and institution in the process, the better.