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Maximizing the Operational and Financial Sustainability of Justice Programs

How to Sustain Justice Programs Financially & Operationally

Grant-funded programs recognize that sustainability is critical for continuing their work after funding ends, yet few understand actionable steps for putting it into practice. In simple terms, sustainability is the act of continuing implementation of a program after existing funding concludes. Importantly, programs should plan for the possibility that they may need alternative funding sources to continue their work and not assume that funding will continue from the original agency.

Below are several practical recommendations for operationally and financially sustaining a program. Many of these lessons learned came out of RTI International’s work with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Second Chance Act Evaluation and Sustainability Training and Technical Assistance. This program supported agencies and organizations across the United States that serve prison and jail residents as well as returning citizens as they transition back to the community. These lessons learned are not limited to the justice system, however, and can be applied more broadly across disciplines.

Start Planning for Sustainability on Day 1

A common mistake with sustainability planning is to wait until the middle or end of the project to begin planning for sustainability. Instead, the project director or coordinator should begin having these conversations with their team, research partners, and training and technical assistance providers at the beginning of the project. Some funders, such as BJA, require the submission of a Planning and Implementation Guide or Action Plan before grantees can receive their full grant award. These road maps for implementation typically include sections for grantees to describe their sustainability plans for the project. Standard templates for implementation guides can be found online, and they often include goals, milestones, and resource allocation.

Develop a Brand for Your Justice Program

Early in the project, program directors and managers, team members, research partners, and other experts should convene to establish a program identity and brand that potential funders will not forget. This collaborative effort will involve developing the program name, which should set the program apart from the proposal that led to the current grant-funded project and other programs doing work in the same space.

This team should also develop a meaningful brand, including the program’s mission, vision, and values. Importantly, the program’s brand may overlap or share some features with the agency or organization or may be more nuanced than the overarching entity’s brand. Developing the program’s brand is a critical first step before beginning dissemination activities because any client- or public-facing products will ideally include the program’s brand.

Strengthen Communications Between Parties and Participants

A program should create a communications plan early in the project to share information with vested parties and to keep participants, the community, and potential funders engaged with the work. Ideally, this plan should align target audiences, message content, channel, frequency of dissemination, champions, and milestones.

When designing a communications plan, it is important to be intentional about creating products that resonate with the target audience. The message may take the form of a one-pager, spotlight, brief, or dedicated section in a program newsletter. For example, a recruitment brochure should be accessible, visually appealing, and direct with the target audience (potential participants) about the program’s expectations of them and next steps. Further, the life cycle of a program presents numerous opportunities to inform others about it. Consider sharing your program’s description, partnerships, target populations served, origins of the program, and gaps in services that it fills.

Plan for Financially Sustaining Your Justice Program

As a first step for financial sustainability, assemble a planning team that will coordinate and collaborate to secure program funding. Establish clear goals for the team and roles and responsibilities for each team member. After developing this team, the team should engage in a funding mapping exercise that documents (1) the program’s existing needs and current funding, (2) the funders and gaps in program components that those funders would be interested in supporting, and (3) potential partners. In addition, the team should develop a watch-list of public and private funders and set aside time to actively monitor when these funders release new, relevant opportunities.

Identify Champions of Sustainability Activities

Sustainability planning efforts are only useful and successful to the extent that programs have a dedicated champion or champions to manage them. The planning team must have a dedicated team member (i.e., champion) to manage the communications plan and ensure that the team is meeting dissemination milestones. The funding team must have a champion to coordinate program efforts and monitor potential funding opportunities. Where possible, leverage the experience of research partners in the field. As an example, researchers and faculty members from university or research institute collaborators might be able to assist with developing and submitting proposals.

Steps to Sustaining a Justice Program

This list of recommendations is not exhaustive, but it provides a starting point for program managers to consider as they work toward program sustainability. These tips also provide a launching pad for thoughtful discourse among practitioners and researchers as they share their diverse perspectives around strategies they have used to sustain their work.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Samuel Scaggs (Research Criminologist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.