Evidence-Based Health Promotion Programs for Older Adults: Key Factors and Strategies Contributing to Program Sustainability, offered by the National Council on Aging, provides comprehensive details on program sustainability.
The Cooperative Extension of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Participants in Prevention Programs, a document that provides suggestions for program sustainability.
In the context of program implementation, sustainability can be defined on the individual, organizational, or community levels.
All three levels of sustainability are important and each is particularly relevant depending on your circumstance. Individual level sustainability is important to examine during evaluation research. Data on individual level sustainability contributes to the evidence base of a program. An organization might choose to implement one program over another due to the individual level sustainability demonstrated in evaluation studies. Community level sustainability is especially important to consider if a community coalition participated in the selection or implementation process. If you are in a position to influence policy then you would also be interested in this level of sustainability.
Most organizations planning and implementing programs will be mainly concerned with organizational level sustainability. This level pertains to the abilities of individual organizations to maintain implementation of their programs in the face of changes in funding, resource availability, and audience characteristics.
Before implementing strategies to increase sustainability, organizations must determine if their program should be sustained. In general, programs that produce positive outcomes should be sustained. Sometimes programs will not produce positive outcomes or will produce few positive outcomes in proportion to the resources invested in them. In these latter situations, organizations must determine whether or not to sustain their programs.
If you believe a program failed to produce positive outcomes due to a distinct variable that will not be repeated (such as a community-wide disaster or significant staff turnover that occurred during implementation), then you may choose to sustain the program with the expectation that positive outcomes will pick up now that the variable has passed. If, on the other hand, you believe the program was unsuccessful due to it being a mismatch with your organization or the audience, then it would be unwise to continue investing in the program. If the program did produce positive outcomes but they were small in proportion to the resources invested into it, then consider searching for a program that targets a similar outcome. You may be able to identify and implement a similar program that is less costly, less time consuming, and/or requires fewer staff members.
Because settings and audiences vary so widely, there are no hard-and-fast strategies that can be recommended for application in all situations. Instead, various strategies should be applied if relevant to your organization, program, and audience. Be sure to pay close attention to fidelity when selecting strategies to increase sustainability so that you do not jeopardize program outcomes.