I have been following the discussion you spurred regarding population ecology and program sustainability with great interest. Mainly, since my PhD theses focused on examining predictions of program sustainability deriving from ecological theories as opposed to those driving adaptation theories.
I am attaching the abstract to give you a glimpse into the research. Unfortunately, the whole paper is in Hebrew, but I will be happy to discuss any element with you if you are interested.
Research findings indicate that as many as 40% of social programs are not sustained beyond the initial investment period (e.g. Bracht et al., 1994; Mancini & Marek, 1998; O’Loughlin et al., 1998). Thus, both significant investments in financial and human resources and the potential benefits for the target audience of the programs are lost. Therefore, and as a result of the recognition that the mechanisms effecting program continuation, are still not fully understood, it is not surprising, that during the past few years, researchers, funders and program operators are increasingly interested in program sustainability, (Scheirer, 2005). Since a program is an integral part of the organization in which it operates, it is logical to assume that the empirical literature will examine the issue of program sustainability in relation to the diverse literature on organizational sustainability. Nevertheless, a review of literature indicates that to this point, no attempts have been made to examine assumptions regarding program sustainability as deriving from organizational theories. In the current research, program sustainability has been defined in three ways:
The first refers to project continuation and distribution, measured on a continuum, with one side representing the optimal situation in which the program expanded or spread to other populations or locations. On the other side of the continuum, there are programs which ceased from existing, and in the middle programs which continued in the same format and under the same organization.
The second measure, growth, was examined in six project components: budget, number of permanent staff, scope of activities, number of different types of activities, clients, and branches.
The third measure, institutionalization was examined via two dichotomous questions: 1) Is the project included in a regular budget – has it become part of the annual budget of an organization or public body? 2) Is the project anchored in law or in set rules and regulations?
The measures were examined in reference to three points of time: immediately after the initial funding ceased, a year after initial funding ceased and at the sampling point. In reference to these definitions of sustainability, this research examined predictions of program sustainability deriving from ecological theories in opposition to adaptation theories. These two theories defer in their perception of the source of organizational change. While ecological theories focus on the environment as the source of organizational change, adaptation theories explain sustainability to the extent in which the organizational is able to adapt to its changing environment. The variables examined in this research derive from three central differences between the two theories: The dynamics of the organization with its environment, organizational legitimation and organizational characteristics and dynamics. The variables were gathered in two assumption formations, representing predictions deriving from ecological or adaptation theories. The basic assumption was that verification of one formation and rejection of the other will point to the better theory predicting program sustainability.
Sample & Method
The sample included 197 programs, funded by 13 foundations. The sample included programs defined as new or innovative, funded for a limited period of time by a foundation who views it as part of its mission to encourage the development of new programs. The target populations of the programs included in the research were diverse, with a wide range of ages (starting with preschoolers and ending with the elderly) and characteristics (men and women; Jews and Arabs; religious and secular; new immigrants and natives; healthy and physically or mentally ill (Savaya & Spiro, 2008). The program ages ranged between one year to 33 years, with an average of 9.45 years and a standard deviation of 6.22 years. The questionnaire, developed by Savaya & Spiro (2008), included 227 items examining different aspects of sustainability and predictors referring to four central aspects, the program; the organization in which the program operated, the program environment and the foundation.
Statistical analysis and findings
In this research we used a number of statistical methodologies to examine the research models from different angles and in this way to expand our understanding of each theory’s strength in predicting the sustainability of social programs. First, the distribution of the research variables, and the ties between them were examined through Pearson correlations. Following, the extent to which the predictors of each theory explain the dependent variables was examined through regression analyses. In addition an analysis was conducted using structural equation modeling (SEM) to examine the general model of the ecological theory versus the adaptation theory. Last, analyses of variance were conducted in order to examine the connection between foundations’ operating patterns and the dependent measures.
Research findings indicated that the three variables are strongly connected to program sustainability: “future orientation of the foundation in fostering the project’s sustainability”; “sense of ownership and support of the auspice organization management” and “political skills of the program and organization’s leaders”. As opposed, five of the variables were found to be unrelated to sustainability: “program integration in the auspice organization”; “size of program in relation to organization”; “political activity in aim of fundraising”; “program adaptation to its’ environment” and “creativity and innovation”.
The regression analyses indicate the strengths of each theory. On the three points over the time line examined: immediately after the initial funding ceased; a year after initial funding ceased and at the sampling point, the ecological theories explains program sustainability better than the adaptation theory. Both adaptation models were not statistically significant for explaining program sustainability at the two last points on the time line.
Last, in a quantitative analysis of the data collected through interviews with the heads of foundations, significant statistical differences were found between programs funded by different types of foundations. Programs funded by community foundations were more likely to survive than those funded by public foundations. In addition research findings indicate that programs supported by foundations operating in partnerships, forming strategy and supporting its’ execution, are more likely to be sustained than programs supported by foundations acting as catalysts. In the role of catalyst the foundation supports organizations dealing with a social problem, without outlining a certain strategy or expected outcomes.
A central finding of the research points out the need to differentiate between definitions of sustainability as changes overtime manifested in the different program aspects: budget, number of permanent staff, scope of activities, number of different types of activities, clients, and branches; to definitions of sustainability as institutionalization: its’ inclusion in a regular budget and its’ anchor in law or in set rules and regulation. Findings indicate that the ecological theory has an advantage over the adaptation theory in predicting sustainability as a change in program elements over time, while the adaptation theory has an advantage in predicting sustainability as a manifestation of institutionalization.
The research has four theoretical contributions. First, in examining the applicability of two competing models for predicting sustainability which have been examined in connection to organizations, but have not been examined in reference to social programs. Second, in examining an empirical tool developed by Savaya and Spiro (2008) as part of a theoretical framework. Third, in broadening and deepening the understanding of the phenomenon of program sustainability through a number of statistical methodologies providing different angles. Fourth, in findings providing insights on the theoretical level regarding the need for integration between the two theories.
On the practical level, the contribution of the research is in the new comprehension of the factors influencing program sustainability on the different levels (environment, auspice organization and the program) and in providing guidelines for a strategic plan for the improvement of odds for program sustainability.
Dr. Odette Segal Odettese@mli.org.il