The successful delivery of any project or service requires a significant investment of money, time and effort. The purpose of this, as with any investment, is to ensure a return – albeit in terms of social value rather than financial gain. To maximise this gain, it is crucial that projects and services are sustained beyond the end of any initial funding period.
To this end, sustaining funded activities was a key priority for Brightlife. All providers were challenged to develop a sustainability plan with the support of the Brightlife team and Cheshire West Voluntary Action (CWVA).
There are many different models that can be used for sustainability, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. The most appropriate model to use depends on the type, format and requirements of the individual project or service to which it is being applied.
One option is for delivery partners to seek access to alternative funding sources, either from the original commissioner or from a new funder. While this can seem like a straightforward way to maintain provision while minimising disruption to delivery, it can be surprisingly difficult to find funding for the continuation of existing programmes. Most funders have strict conditions for awards, including requirements for projects to meet specific objectives, which are unlikely to be exactly the same as the original aims of the project for which further support is being sought.
Another option is to introduce affordable charges for services. For projects that involve large numbers of participants meeting on a regular or semi-regular basis to learn new skills, this can be a sensible option – participants are usually willing to pay for what they perceive to be a valuable service. However, for projects that involve a smaller number of participants, or which deliver services or benefits that are less tangible, a charging model may be less appropriate.
Projects and services involving mainly social activities can also potentially be maintained by training volunteers to take over their delivery. While this may appear to be a low-cost option, there is likely to be a significant outlay involved in terms of skill development. Some project teams reported that in this situation, volunteers need a great deal of training and experience before taking over delivery, especially for ‘facilitating’ roles, which often involve the challenge of managing the more vocal members of a group while catering to the needs of those who are less forthright. Projects with a strong element of top-down coordination in their delivery were found to be less sustainable under this model.
As discussed in the ‘Making connections’ section, early investment in marketing and promotion of projects and services can facilitate participant recruitment by raising the profile of the offer in the community it is designed to serve. However, marketing – and communications more generally – is about more than just recruitment – it also has an important role in sustainability.
There is a common misunderstanding across the voluntary sector that spending money on marketing (rather than directly on service delivery) is somehow wasteful. But without effective marketing and promotion, it is not only difficult to attract, recruit and retain participants and volunteers, but it is also very hard to secure ongoing support from potential funders and partners.
In risking both the success and the sustainability of their projects, providers that fail to invest in marketing and promotion are ultimately far more wasteful than those who do.
However, delivery partners may not always have the necessary skills or resources available in-house. While Brightlife has encouraged all its delivery partners to allocate 5-10% of their budget to marketing, many providers – especially smaller ones – struggled to develop and implement an effective marketing plan, with few developing a branding, PR or digital strategy.
A commissioner can help by providing support with marketing and communications, including training. At Brightlife, this meant offering delivery partners ongoing support with marketing and promotion, the duration and extent of which is based on individual needs. Providers were given help to create a strong visual brand (and digital presence where relevant), as well as help with promotional activities including PR, advertising, networking, partnership promotions and events.
Commissioners have a responsibility for the sustainability of the projects and services they fund, not only in designing contract specifications with the capacity for longevity beyond the initial funding period, but also in supporting providers from the earliest stages of their application all the way through to the end of the delivery phase.
Just as delivery partners may require support with marketing and promotion, many will also require help with the logistics of delivery, especially if they are less experienced service providers, or if they have not worked directly with older people before.
In providing the necessary training and support, commissioners are not only facilitating the efficient use of their own funds – they are also giving providers the skills and experience to continue delivery into the future, ultimately improving the range and quality of services that are available for older people.
Commissioners can facilitate sustainability by challenging and supporting delivery partners to develop their own sustainability plans. Affording delivery partners more control over the models they choose can build their confidence in their own strategy, increasing the likelihood that their plan will be successfully implemented.
This empowerment of delivery partners was built in to the commissioning process at Brightlife, with all contract specifications requiring providers to demonstrate how they would ensure that their programmes continued to serve older people in the future.
Ensuring sustainability is particularly important for schemes involving mentoring. The services provided through these schemes often result in the establishment of close relationships that represent a vital part of the support networks for participants: if that support were to be suddenly withdrawn at the end of the initial funding period, this could leave participants even more vulnerable than they had been before.
Of course, mentoring and buddy relationships can continue informally without any external funding – however this leaves those in the mentor/buddy role without any formal support. Ideally, these types of projects should be designed with sustainability as an absolute priority.
What will be Brightlife Cheshire's legacy?