Joanne Lee with Active Living By Design discusses sustainability tips during last week's Annual Grantee Meeting at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Joanne Lee with Active Living By Design discusses sustainability tips during last week’s Annual Grantee Meeting at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

When we first met Joanne Lee, senior project officer for Active Living By Design, she was helping us decide which applicants to accept into our newly conceived Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program. Her expertise helped us narrow our choices down to the 12 amazing wellness projects now underway. That was over two years ago! And we were pleased to have her back for a visit during last week’s Annual Grantee Meeting, where she got a chance to listen to all the amazing work our grantees have accomplished. She then dispensed some invaluable information on how to keep these terrific projects going, long after Challenge Grant funding has run its course (beginning fall 2015). We followed up and asked her to expound on a few of her ideas — like, why it’s possibly more damaging to a community to start a project, then vanish, than never having done a thing at all:


Q: During last week’s meeting, you said basically that to not think about sustainability is perhaps worse than having done nothing at all. What did you mean by that?

A: It speaks to the fact that making true change is more than just about providing new infrastructure or introducing a new program. Sometimes there are well intentioned people who come in, wanting to help. But if they don’t plan for sustainability in a way that includes the community members, then that community can end up feeling burned. They may feel like, “Oh, it’s just another organization that came in and thought they were going to rescue us, and now they’re gone.” And it leaves the impression that only organizations have the capacity to get grants and do things — but it’s not something we can be a part of.

Q: You’re talking about empowerment — empowering a community to be involved and, eventually, take over.

A: Yes, empowerment is definitely part of it. For instance, with Challenge Grant, the Foundation invested in lead agencies to develop broader partnerships and then, hopefully, to transfer leadership to a local level.

Q: And let’s be clear, what are we talking about when we say “sustainability”?

A: Well, it’s great and necessary to have new infrastructure and new spaces and places where people can be active and access healthy food. But infrastructure, as an example, we know that requires maintenance over time. If you leave without providing social support and policies for maintenance, you’re not leaving them with any capacity in the community to continue. And then you haven’t sustained the infrastructure. If you don’t have ongoing support, community gardens become vacant lots, and playgrounds become unsafe to use.

Q: What are the most important steps to consider when planning for sustainability in a project?

A: Two very important steps for sustainability…. First, making sure there is leadership development in the community. There must be authentic community engagement. Are your partners partners in name only? Are the only ones involved people who do this as part of a job, not people who actually live, work and play in this community? Are you meeting during lunch and after work hours, so you aren’t alienating community members who work during the day? And then, let the agenda be defined by and driven by community members. Program leaders must consider — are your community members really at the table?

Q: And second?

Program leaders should continually build in time to intentionally reassess partnerships, to make sure everyone’s on target.  With Challenge Grant, for example, everyone came up with their project plans three years ago. So, now if we’re thinking about how we’re going to sustain it, it forces everyone to think not only about what they have accomplished, but other things… Do the communities have different needs now? Has the political climate changed? Have partners come and gone? Are there new in-kind resource opportunities? And, of course, what are we doing that focuses on sustainability?

Q: Earlier, you talked about programs setting themselves up for failure if they are only relying on the next grant dollar to keep them going. But isn’t money just a fact of life for programs? Won’t they need some to keep going?

A: When partnerships and communities have the mindset that they always need outside dollars to truly accomplish anything, it often means they are not truly utilizing all their internal capabilities. Sustainability is not only about grant funding. It’s about, ‘Where can we get and develop resources internally?’ Look at the resources of your partner organizations and try to find alignment. What are your common goals? What’s the mission alignment? Then you’ll find partners who can bring in-kind sources. Or there may be opportunities for institutionalizing programs, so funding can be earmarked from within for ongoing programs. Look what happened with the mayor of Jena. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Q: Right, because after his term as mayor, Murphy McMillin is now going to work in a new position that will create changes parish-wide. It’s a newly created position that developed because of his work in Jena and through the Challenge Grant funded Live Lively LaSalle project.

A: I just want to emphasize how significant this was. He had no idea when he started where this was going to go. He didn’t think, ‘I’m going make this healthy program so successful in Jena, it will become a regional project.’ He just showed them what could be done. He just said, ‘Think about it — when health is tied to economic development, see what an impact you can have?’

Q: After spending a couple of days with the grantees, what was your impression of the project and the work being done in Louisiana’s communities?

A: It was really a privilege to hear their stories. And I hope they realize what a landmark moment this is. I hope hearing it from someone like me, someone from the outside, they realize what they are doing is pretty special. And to hear they have dollars and plans already set aside for sustainability, that is impressive. And I hope they realize a little more that everything they’re doing comes with responsibility, not just to their communities, but to each other. They are now part of the Challenge Grant program’s network of grantees. There’s power in that network now. You all can really come together now as a portfolio and have an impact state wide. You can influence change at a higher level. And the Foundation is supporting cross grantee networking, which is really smart, because that’s how broader movement occurs — through network.

As a Senior Project Officer for Active Living By Design, Joanne Lee provides technical assistance and support to partnerships and partners across the country in their efforts to develop and sustain healthy communities. For more information on Lee and Active Living By Design, go to

The Challenge Grant Team!
The Challenge Grant Team!