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Sustainable Thinking: Destination or a State of Being?

By on March 15, 2017



When we think about sustaining healthy community change, it can feel a bit like running on a treadmill. It’s hard and, no matter how high we turn up the speed, it can feel like we’re not making any progress. Sometimes it seems futile, especially if we focus on sustaining individual projects rather than whole communities and the cultures and people within them. Furthermore, trying to sustain individual projects or initiatives fails to provide the flexibility necessary to respond to changing community contexts and emerging opportunities and needs.

In Sarah Strunk’s blog, “Are We Sustaining Our Work or Sustaining Its Impact?,” she challenges funders to reframe a common question posed to prospective grantees: In no more than one page, describe how you will sustain your work once the project period ends. Inherent in this question is the onus on grantees and/or community partners to address sustainability. Perhaps it is also time for funders to examine how they can answer that question. 

Sustainable thinking is one of six Essential Practices that must be interwoven into healthy community strategies in order to achieve greatest impact. We view it not as a destination, but as an ongoing process to maintain healthy communities. Active Living By Design (ALBD)’s Sustainability Framework highlights the importance of social and environmental sustainability strategies in addition to economic ones. The Framework also describes how sustainability can be achieved through shared responsibilities between community partners and funders.

Over the past 15 years, ALBD has been fortunate to collaborate with funders who have been strategic about their role in sustaining healthy communities. Our experience as a connector has enabled us to glean feedback from community leaders and lessons learned from funders, many of which are described in “Investing in Healthy Community Change.” As funders embrace sustainable thinking, they should consider these two key lessons:

  • Recognize their value to communities beyond providing dollars. Communities recognize how their relationships with funders can help convene key stakeholders, garner greater respect and trust from partners, and attract other diverse investors. Grantees also appreciate that funders with a local or defined geographic focus tend to better understand their contexts, assets, and challenges. This makes them particularly helpful as strategic thought partners.
  • Set sustainability as an expected outcome and provide supports for communities to achieve it. Funders that are committed to investing in sustaining healthy communities don’t just require evidence of matching funds and other resources—they actively help grantees secure them. We’ve also seen how providing additional resources specifically earmarked for partner and resident capacity-building enables community partnerships to be intentional about incorporating it into their ongoing efforts.

The New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth) and New York Community Trust (NYCT) have modeled these lessons in their investments and their partnerships with grantees. Through the Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, NYSHealth and NYCT are leveraging their resources to provide multi-year support to nine community partnerships within the state. Their investment includes a mix of grant dollars, coaching and technical assistance, and collaborative learning opportunities. Throughout the initiative, they have offered grantees and their partners complementary funding and capacity-building opportunities, including crowd-resourcing (crowd-funding plus resource organizing) and support for special projects. These supports have already laid a foundation for longer-term sustainability. Three stellar examples include:

  • An additional $115,073 (plus volunteer time) has been secured to support twenty-three projects in the Healthy Neighborhoods sites through ioby crowd-resourcing.
  • The youth-led MAPSCorps (Meaningful, Active, Productive Science in Service to Communities) approach has expanded across Healthy Neighborhoods sites, providing critical links to connect neighborhood residents to resources for healthy eating, active living, and other assets that contribute to community health.
  • Field & Fork will continue to expand the Double Up Food Bucks program from 11 counties in Western New York to more communities statewide, thereby increasing access to affordable produce for low-income communities and redirecting more funding for food assistance to local farmers and economies.

While we may not see immediate results from sustainable thinking—much like a treadmill run—these examples and lessons enable us to trust that progress is being made. It’s not about getting from destination A to B, but about learning how to run.

Joanne Lee

Joanne Lee |

Collaborative Learning Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.

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