Chapter Nine: Sustainability of place-based approaches


What is sustainability?

Sustainability in this context means the settings to enable the work to continue without requiring significant shifts in resourcing, leadership or direction.

Why is it important?

Sustainability should be a focus through all phases of a place-based approach. Sometimes it can be easy to focus on immediate actions and getting things done, without regularly monitoring the long-term impact on the community. However, meaningful change requires a focus on planning and investment to maintain the commitment of key partners over the long haul.

Research shows that public sector staff often continue to experiment and trial ‘new’ ways of working, including place-based initiatives, without considering the findings or lessons from previous efforts.

Considerable time and effort are often spent in establishing place-based approaches including building trust and relationships with local communities and external partners, only for funding to be cut due to changing government priorities.

How it works

Use the following five steps to work with a place-based initiative to embed sustainability.

Step 1: Tackle sustainability issues early on

Consider sustainability from the start. This includes thinking through and mitigating against risks that may affect different stages of the initiative.

Step 2: Plan for sustainability

Use a self-assessment project sustainability tool to identify, think through and plan for potential sustainability issues. To learn more about this, refer to the Tamarack Sustainability Tool.

  • Ask the following questions to help guide this process:
  • What is the place-based initiative planning to sustain? Has the initiative communicated this directly with all stakeholders? Has a shared understanding of sustainability been developed among partners?
  • Has the place-based initiative engaged with the community to collaboratively determine which work to sustain and prioritise, and which work to let go?
  • If appropriate, how will government exit?
  • How will you measure the outcomes? How will you define successful sustainable impact?
  • How will the initiative sustain positive change over the longer term.

Step 3: Secure long-term commitment

Ensure the community, partner organisations, governance groups, funders, backbone organisations, government and other stakeholders are committed for the medium- to long-term. This will help the place-based initiative endure and achieve real and lasting outcomes.

Where possible, discuss, articulate and formalise commitments with all key partners early on. Organisations’ priorities may change; without formal commitment resources may be pulled away to focus on other things, leaving a few to do a lot.

Keep in mind that if there is interest in, but not a commitment to, creating a place-based initiative, it may not be the right time to launch.

To strengthen commitment to a place-based initiative you could:

  • embed place-based approaches into organisations’ strategic plans
  • work with the place-based initiative to align it with government policies.

Step 4: Plan for succession and knowledge retention

Staff turnover is a natural feature of the work, particularly as place-based initiatives are focused on the medium to long-term. When working with people from a range of partner organisations, there may be a risk that an organisation’s involvement or commitment to the initiative may wane when a key person leaves their role.

Without formally defined and established processes in place, important knowledge can be lost when someone leaves, making it difficult for a new person to get up to pace quickly. This can be managed well through good succession planning.

To address ‘knowledge drain’ you could:

  • maintain up-to-date records and written details on processes that relate to the place-based initiative
  • Embed effective hand-over and induction processes. Use ‘warm handovers’ with planned transition arrangements between departing and new staff, including a supported introduction to people, networks and organisations and a period of shadowing before handover.
  • ‘train-up’ by providing project exposure to more junior staff across partner agencies and ‘shadowing’ opportunities for emerging community leaders over the life of the initiative.

These actions can also help the place-based initiative maintain momentum when staff move on or are called away to other responsibilities.

Step 5: Invest in the social capital of the community

Build social capital

Work with the place-based initiative to ensure that building the social capital of communities a central feature the approach. If the community is left dependent on a few key people running the place-based initiative, it will be very hard to maintain positive changes and self-sufficiency in the long term. Ideally, the community should have stronger bonds, more local leaders, be more resilient, feel more empowered and have a greater capacity to take ownership and work through local issues themselves.

Refer to the section on building social capital in Chapter One: Understanding place-based approaches and how they evolve over time for more tips.

Focus on community development

Focus on community development and community strengthening to make your place-based approach ‘the new normal’. This means equipping and supporting local leaders and community groups throughout

the life of the place-based initiative to be able to serve and work with their communities. Build these priorities into the approach early on, to provide learning experiences and opportunities to community members and groups who are keen to participate.

Refer to the section on strategies for meaningful engagement in Chapter One: Understanding place-based approaches for more tips.

Additional tools and resources