How Can We Keep It Going? Key Ingredients for Evidence-Based Program Sustainability

How Can We Keep It Going? Key Ingredients for Evidence-Based Program Sustainability

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Brittany Rhoades Cooper, PhD, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Human Development, Graduate Faculty in Prevention Science, Drew Lenore Betz, M.S., Professor, Extension Youth and Family
Program sustainability is a key factor for many youth and family program staff who want to build successful long-term programs in their communities. This publication outlines the four keys for unlocking evidence-based program sustainability.
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Highly regarded evidence-based programs aimed at improving youth and family well-being can fail easily when there is little or no planning for how to sustain the program past the first few initial implementations. Funding is often called out as the major reason for why programs do not last in communities. However, studies of program sustainability have shown that it is only one factor in program longevity, and perhaps not the most important factor. Four key ingredients for program sustainability are identified in this publication: program characteristics, organizational capacity and support, community capacity and support, and sustainability planning. The Program Sustainability Assessment Tool (PSAT), which is designed to assess and build capacity in these domains, is introduced. A case study illustrates how to use the PSAT effectively for long-term program planning and coordination. Youth and family program staff who are using evidence-based programs and want to assure they gain traction in their local communities can benefit from thinking about sustainability early and assessing and building capacity in these key ingredients throughout the program implementation process.


The long-term enduring success and positive impact of community-based youth and family programs are largely dependent upon the capacity of local organizations to sustain them beyond initial seed grant funding. Program coordinators often lament lack of funding, pointing to it as the primary barrier to continuing a program. Although this is clearly a necessary piece of the sustainability puzzle, it is not sufficient on its own. The constant pressure and focus on securing additional funding can overshadow other key ingredients to successful program sustainability. Without specific guidance on balancing the search for funding with capacity building in these other key areas, initial investments are lost and many organizations struggle to achieve the sustained, positive impact on youth and family well-being they intended.

Program Sustainability: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Many programs have been rigorously evaluated and deemed “evidence-based” because of their demonstrated success in improving youth and family well-being. They are widely promoted through registries of effective programs like the

Blueprints Programs for Healthy Youth Development, and they are being widely adopted because of federal, state, and foundation grants, which require utilization of evidence-based programs. However, evidence-based programs are worthless if they cannot be consistently and effectively delivered in real-world settings where they are able to reach those youth and families that need them most.

One important component of effective youth and family program delivery is sustainability. Program sustainability is defined as the “continued use of program components and activities for the continued achievement of desirable program and population outcomes” (Scheirer and Dearing 2011). Because the vast majority of funding for youth and family programs is distributed through time-limited grants intended to “seed” effective programs, there is a critical need for youth and family professionals to focus on sustainability planning and capacity building early and often. Without specific guidance on how to do this, however, many programs are not sustained beyond the start-up grant dollars allocated to promote their adoption. As a result, too often, time-limited implementations result in time-limited impacts, which not only leave community needs unmet, but waste initial investments and can reduce the community’s trust and support for future programs (Gruen et al. 2008). Fortunately, there is a growing research base highlighting the key ingredients to successful program sustainability, which can serve as guidance to youth and family professionals implementing these programs (Aarons et al. 2016; Cooper et al. 2015; Schell et al. 2013; Wiltsey Stirman et al. 2012; Welsh et al. 2016).

Key Ingredients for Program Sustainability

The process by which a program becomes successfully sustained is not linear, may look different from program to program, and is influenced by the broader social, policy, and financial context of the community (Scheirer 2013). However, sustainability research and theory point to several key factors, which may assist youth and family professionals as they plan for and implement their programs. The key ingredients for successful program sustainability fall into four major categories and are shown in Figure 1. They include (1) program characteristics, (2) organizational capacity and support, (3) community capacity and support, and (4) sustainability planning (Scheirer and Dearing 2011; Wiltsey Stirman et al. 2012).



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