The long haul: Understanding STEM community sustainability as a systems challenge

At the end of April 2022, CSCCE’s Director Lou Woodley co-developed a session on sustainability in community projects for the National Organization of Research Development Professionals conference with Melissa Vaught (University of Washington), Jennifer Glass (Eastern Michigan University), Connie Johnson (Umass Chan Medical School), and Jessica Moon (Stanford Aging and Ethnogeriatrics Transdisciplinary Collaborative Research Center).

In this guest blog post, Melissa, who is also a member of CSCCE’s community of practice for STEM community managers, recaps the goals and outcomes of the session.

Sustainability in STEM communities

“Sustainability” is a major buzzword these days. Funding agencies want to move beyond continuously re-funding programs they’ve supported before. They want to see plans for how the creators will keep the work running without indefinite support from the funder. When we see “sustainability” in a funding context, our brains may jump to money. But sustainability is much more complex!

Of course, programs can’t carry on without resources. But programs and centers have many interconnected pieces that affect the behavior of the whole. It’s impossible to disentangle the parts. Decisions about program design, management, and evaluation determine what resources are needed to keep the work going and what value we can deliver and demonstrate. The impact we imagine and later show (or don’t) through evidence will influence the buy-in of community champions and other stakeholders. Their buy-in (or lack thereof) can shift the capital, human, and social resources available to our programs.

Defining and designing sustainable systems

In short, sustainability is a systems challenge. To build better sustainability plans, we need to start with defining the envisioned system and future state. We can uncover key requirements with just a few questions:

  • What are the desired long-term outcomes? We don’t build programs for the sake of building programs, but rather to achieve something greater. Get clear about the big picture, including what you mean by “long-term” (how long is it?).
  • What structures need to persist or evolve to achieve the outcomes? Human nature seems inclined to often add, and rarely subtract, activities. But the relevance of some work will shift over time as we cultivate experience and capacity in our communities. Some resources may only be needed for a limited time, some may need little attention after creation, and some may never truly be “done”, requiring regular updating.
  • What’s needed to maintain and adapt the structures? This gets at defining the resources that we’ll need, like staffing and costs. But we might find stickier problems that call for deep focus, like a need for culture change to strengthen the structures and their abilities to trigger downstream outcomes.
  • Who could be engaged to design, inform, or support these needs? We easily recognize some of the key players, like the people or organizations that will fund and build the program. We can broaden our potential resources, though, by broadening our lens and including those we expect to benefit and the communities that could be affected downstream. 

The six core elements of sustainability

As we begin to better understand the system surrounding a program or resource, we can spot many factors and strategies in sustainability. Within each, we find more questions, tactics, and ways they interact with one another. It can be overwhelming! But what’s relevant and achievable will vary based on the program’s goals and resources. To provide enough structure to focus planning but enough flexibility to adapt for specific use cases and to foster creativity in finding solutions, we identified six core elements of sustainability, described in the table. The potential supporting activities are meant to bring to life some of the challenges and solutions one might encounter in designing for sustainability.

ElementDescriptionExamples of supporting sustainability
FiscalFunding to support program management and activities after initial funding endsApplying for other types of grantsSecuring institutional supportCreating a fee-for-service model
LeadershipEstablishing resilient governance and project leadershipEstablishing an effective advisory boardCreating succession plans for expected and unexpected departures
OrganizationalAligning community, center, or program structures to the goals and needs of the workDefining the business case for setting up a center within an existing institutionDeveloping a business plan to transition to independence as a non-profit
OperationalDeveloping people and scaffolding to maintain continuity, even through shifts and shocksHiring and training foundational staff Developing standard operating proceduresEstablishing knowledge management systems and processes
CommunityBuilding and maintaining trust and engagementCreating a code of conduct for participation Establishing guidelines for ethical co-creation, recognition, and reward
Accessibility & usabilityEnsuring that people can find the program resource and actually use itDesigning for dissemination from the startIntegrating universal design to accommodate different types of usersProviding documentation or training videos to support use
The six core elements of sustainability

Our program design and sustainability planning weave into the larger fabric of our teams and organizations. Thus, we need to consider institutional values in our approach to different elements of sustainability. Inclusivity, for instance, may guide us away from fiscal and licensing models that would limit access while also driving hiring practices and codes of conduct that promote equity and belonging. Our programs are systems within systems (and so on), and we need to crystallize and align along unifying priorities.

Not only are these systems complex, they’re also dynamic. Needs and resources will change over time. To some, this may sound daunting and even frustrating. “I go to all this work, and you’re telling me the plan will have to change?!” But we see another side to the coin. There are many possible paths to sustainability. If we start planning late or find our plan is no longer working, we can explore other opportunities. We can revisit the requirements and the vision and reengage stakeholders to find another way forward.

Melissa Vaught is the Director of Research Development for the Institute of Translational Health Sciences, a federally funded center based at the University of Washington and serving a five-state region in the northwest US. The post is adapted from a session at the at the annual meeting of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals. The following individuals also contributed to the development of the session and the ideas presented here: Jennifer Glass – Research Development Officer, Eastern Michigan University; Connie Johnson – Director of Corporate & Foundation Relations, Office of Advancement, UMass Chan Medical School; Jessica Moon – Executive Director, Stanford Aging and Ethnogeriatrics Transdisciplinary Collaborative Research Center (P30 AG059307); Lou Woodley – Founder & Director, Center for Scientific Collaboration & Community Engagement. Views presented represent those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect those of their respective organizations.