By Mike Moser, MAVA Board member

MAVA’s Board cares deeply about achieving a sustainable exit when grant funding ends in 2022. The Foundation is therefore investing seriously to help our partners build their capacity for life post-MAVA, and also in nurturing young leaders who can carry forward the vision of our founder, Luc Hoffmann, and his family.

But equally important, is the sustainability of the projects that our grantees are now delivering through our Outcome Action Plans. One of the biggest challenges facing NGOs, is how to sustain an initiative when funding from a large donor ceases. Few have the luxury of enough core funding to plug the gap, so the usual reaction is to scrabble to find replacement donors! All too often this signals a failure to achieve a sustainable exit (despite that having been promised in the application to the original donor!). To state the obvious – a successful project or programme should not need continuous re-funding – we should all be aiming to do ourselves out of a job by making our Outcomes sustainable so that we can move onto other priorities!

As a member of the MAVA Board I am watching very closely the dashboard traffic lights used by the Foundation to track the sustainability of our Outcome Action Plans and projects – and right now, there are too many “Ambers”!  So, I’m using this blog to urge all our grantees to focus on ensuring a sustainable exit from your MAVA funded projects. It’s an easy request to make, but harder to deliver. What lessons have I learned about different approaches to achieving sustainable project exits from my many years of working with NGOs and others?  Successful approaches usually fall into one or all of three categories:

The Big Bang

This is perhaps the most exciting approach, as the end of the project signals a new beginning, with a life and momentum of its own. Examples might be the establishment of a new National Park in your project area, creation of a new financing mechanism, or a new environmental “movement” (Luc Hoffmann clearly aimed for a Big Bang when he catalysed the birth of the Ramsar Convention!). My own favourite experience in this category was the creation of the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and accompanying Trust Fund, in the Maldives. We identified this as our sustainable exit only half way through the project, and it took our team to the final days of the 6 year project to achieve it – scary stuff! But several years later our intended Outcomes live on, financed largely by the tourism sector.

Lesson: A Big Bang approach can bring great dividends, but if you fail to achieve it the project investment may be lost altogether – so make sure it’s do-able, or have some very good back-up plans!

Community ownership

Having the community adopt your project outcomes because of the benefits they bring for them, is likely to be the most sustainable exit of all (but see below regarding the need for government alignment). However, mobilising communities in a way that is sustainable in the long-term can be challenging, requiring skills that many of us do not naturally possess. All too often, we find ourselves “talking to the converted”, with a significant proportion of the community (and perhaps those who are causing the greatest environmental problems) absent from the table.

Lessons: Use specialists with a proven track-record in community mobilisation. Sustainability is most often achieved by working through existing community organisations, or where they are absent fostering their emergence (but not leading it). Identify champions within the community, and enable them to advocate your agenda rather than trying to advocate it yourself!

Government alignment

Formal government support in terms of policies, legislation and funding for the outcomes you are trying to achieve is almost a pre-requisite for the “Big Bang” and “Community” approaches to succeed in the long-term. But governments tend to follow – so, you will often have to work with existing mechanisms in the short- to medium-term.

Lessons: Having goals for securing new legislation, new government structures or new budget lines can be very risky for a project due to the unpredictable and long timescales required for approvals. Therefore it is often better to work your outcomes into existing legislation (by producing new by-laws and guidelines), work with existing structures, and creatively integrate your approach into existing budget lines so that it becomes the daily work of government officials.

So, my plea to all MAVA’s grant recipients – is that NOW is the time to finalise and implement your project and Outcome sustainability plans – 2021 or 2022 will be far too late. Let’s turn those traffic lights Green – good luck to you all!