The GiveWell Blog

Can donors fund “sustainable” projects?

It’s one thing to pay for children’s immunizations. It would be quite another to pay for a project that increased immunization rates over the long term, without continued donor support (either thanks to improvement in private-sector or government operations).

Aiming for the latter – or more broadly, aiming to use donations as “startup funds” for lasting and self-sustaining improvements (rather than as indefinite subsidies) – is often referred to as “sustainable development.” Pursuing “sustainability” is often very important to funders. (For example, the World Bank’s latest Independent Evaluation Group report aggregates figures on the likelihood of sustainability for all projects evaluated, and lists these aggregates as one of its key indicators – see Table A.4).

Yet while we would far prefer sustainable programs to unsustainable programs, we don’t currently list “sustainability” as one of our key criteria.

The reason is that while we’ve seen many charities aiming for sustainability, we’ve yet to see any that can demonstrate both future plans and past success in this area.

Sustainability is hard to come by

Most of our recommended international aid charities are aiming at least partially for lasting impact, but evidence that they’ve achieved it is murky at best. Two examples:

Non-recommended organizations rarely appear to be documenting long-term impact of any kind.

Independent literature reinforces the concern that achieving sustainability is difficult and rare.

  • A 2004 paper entitled “The Illusion of Sustainability” states, “Some anecdotal evidence suggests that sustainability has often been a chimera – and sometimes a costly one.”
  • A 2008 paper by William Easterly adds, “This hope [for sustainable projects] has turned out to be an illusion, as the failure to cover recurrent costs has been nearly universal.”
  • A book reviewing aid effectiveness (and generally positive on it) states that “The bulk of the NGO evaluation material which looks into the issue of sustainability has concluded that most NGO projects are not financially sustainable without the continued injection of external funds … Exceptionally few studies have provided a long-term view of [nonprofit] projects and programmes. Most views on the sustainability of NGO projects are based on forward extrapolation of short-term assessments” (281).

We do believe that sustainability in aid is possible, and has been achieved in the past. For example, Aravind Eye Care System appears to be a self-supporting humanitarian organization, using revenue from paying customers to perform cataract surgery on those with lower incomes. This program, in fact, appears so sustainable that there is little donors can add to it, and donations support tangentially related activities. (More broadly, we were recently pointed to family planning as an example of an area where aid has been associated with lasting behavior change.)

But as with impact, we believe that sustainability needs to be demonstrated, not just claimed. In fact, the burden of proof for demonstrating sustainability is even higher than for demonstrating impact.

The importance of long-term evaluation

We constantly stress the importance of systematic, long-term impact evaluation, and note how rarely it is seen in the world of charity. It seems to us that if one is pursuing sustainable impact, the challenge and importance of evaluation become more significant. In order to assess sustainability, a charity must be systematically examining an area (with all the challenges that involves) even after it has withdrawn support.

VillageReach appears to be doing exactly this, and is therefore at least in a position to identify and respond to disappointing results (according to VillageReach representatives, the local government appears to have lapsed back into its former, less efficient logistics approach, but has agreed to renew its focus on sustaining the new model).

In our view, any project that does not include rigorous evaluation can’t make any credible claim that it has achieved sustainability – only that it hopes to.

A desirable goal, but not a reasonable requirement

We think it may often be wise for experts and major funders to focus on sustainability – doing so could make sense even with a high failure rate, because successes are so significant.

But in trying to help individual donors – who aren’t well positioned to innovate – we focus on finding programs that have worked before and are likely to work again. If we required recommended charities to show evidence of “sustainability,” we simply would have no recommended charities, at least at this point. As such, we’ve evaluated our strongest charities by what they can accomplish even assuming that their hopes of sustainability don’t pan out. We recommend VillageReach, despite concerns about sustainability, because its program appears to do a lot of good for relatively little money even if its improvements are never maintained (more here).

If VillageReach’s program does end up having a lasting impact, it will be an even better deal. If we later find a charity that can convincingly demonstrate an ability (not just a plan) to create sustainable and demonstrable impact, we will recommend it strongly. But in the meantime, it doesn’t seem reasonable to criticize a charity on the grounds that its work isn’t sustainable. Simply having real, demonstrable impact is hard enough.