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Sustainability of Grant Activities


Sustaining systems change requires a plan that identifies priorities, action steps, and the resources to overcome barriers to long-term change. Ensuring lasting, positive change on the basis of time-limited grant activities is challenging. While projects chose different areas to sustain, each grantee applied innovative methods to institutionalize its project's best practices. Grantees identified key champions to support the initiative, aligned partners with a common vision, and established strong internal systems in pursuit of specific efforts. Although it is impossible to sustain every element of a short-term project without essentially replacing the resources previously applied to it, grantees were nonetheless able to use partnerships, shared resources, and policy change to integrate new practices going forward, based on the key findings from the services the grant provided. In the end, as was intended by ODEP, sites used the direct service they provided as a tool to learn from themselves and as a meansto guide sustainability and systems change.

Key Findings

Multiple Funding Sources

No one partner or funding mechanism is sufficient to meet the needs of multiple customers, each of whom has unique employment goals and support needs. Accessing multiple funding sources on behalf of customers promoted the sustainability of Customized Employment services. When they developed strong relationships with multiple agencies and systems, and capitalized on associated funding streams, grantees were able to provide the widest range of services.

Staff Competencies

Grantees found that establishing and maintaining an effective professional-development system was a key feature of ongoing sustainability. The innovative strategies associated with Customized Employment, such as discovery, job creation, job negotiation, resource ownership, and supported self-employment, are pivotal to successful employment for job seekers with significant disabilities. Partners realized the importance, therefore, of investing time and effort into professional development for staff to gain competencies in these areas. Partners also found that having peer mentors available for customers with disabilities improved support systems for both job seekers and One-Stop staff.

Use of Customized Employment Strategies with Other Populations

As other WIA-funded programs came to recognize the value that Customized Employment services offered to their populations, various agreements and capacity-building activities occurred to expand these services to more customers with barriers within the system. The broad applicability of Customized Employment services led many agencies, both in and beyond the disability-service system, to find them attractive. In addition to assisting persons with disabilities to gain employment, strategies were effectively employed to assist youth transitioning from high school, veterans, TANF recipients, and individuals who were formerly incarcerated.

Policy Influence

Long-term systemic change can be supported through developing and modifying policies on the local, state, and federal levels. To promote accountability in sustaining systems change, some partnerships modified One-Stop operator and vendor contract language to include the principles and tools of Customized Employment, as well as those of universal-design strategies. In order to sustain these employment activities beyond grant funding, many projects worked closely with the public Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system to advance policies that promoted self-employment and Customized Employment services. Sites also found that proposed programs must account for both the needs of customers and the political realities of cost and stakeholder support.

Redesigning System Infrastructure

Grantees recognized that significant systems change was necessary to efficiently and effectively meet the needs of a broad customer base. Designing a One-Stop infrastructure to limit handoffs and redundancies, address decisions around customers in a more unified way, and promote collaboration within the system was considered, with sites determining that lasting change was not likely to be sustained unless a solid infrastructure was institutionalized. They examined the existing service-delivery structure to identify roles and functions that aligned with Customized Employment, so that these functions could be expanded and the provision of services continued. They also conducted process- and resource-mapping to streamline service systems and establish collaborative service-delivery teams for customers with barriers to employment. The restructuring that occurred reinforced the sustainability of Customized Employment strategies beyond the grant period.


Grantees that elicited buy-in from a number of stakeholders at a variety of leadership levels were the most successful in achieving long-lasting systems change and keeping the mission of enhancing employment opportunities for customers with disabilities at the forefront of their efforts. Having allies and leadership at the local and state levels was also valuable for building trust, credibility, and investment among all constituents. Sustainable systems change within the Workforce development system required leadership at the Workforce Investment Board (WIB) level to "champion" the effort. Sites recognized that this champion should have the leadership to steer the mission and foster improved coordination and collaboration among agencies both within and outside the Workforce development system. Sites also found it critical to obtain board-level investment and commitment by communicating values, and proposing and supporting concrete steps to effect change, throughout the process.

Sustainability Challenges and Strategies

Continuing Partnerships beyond the Grant-Funded Period

Initiatives that involve service delivery and specific individual outcomes often exist only throughout a particular funding period. As additional partnerships were formed and innovative service-delivery systems established, grantees entered into more formal agreements to sustain collaborative efforts beyond the life of the project. These agreements helped ensure that partners were committed to continuing to support job seekers with barriers to employment beyond the grant-funded period.

One grantee partnership determined that formalizing a relationship between the VR system and designated community rehabilitation providers funded through the Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD) system with Letters or Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) helped systematize service-delivery processes. These agreements outlined the roles and responsibilities of specific agencies and staff. Similarly, many projects modified contracts with One-Stop operators and partners to reflect more individualized service delivery. Using specifically worded policies and contracts, sites ensured that quality service-delivery processes remained in place well beyond the grant-funded period.

Systemic Barriers to the Development of Self-Employment Opportunities

Innovative entrepreneurial initiatives proved an effective way to create meaningful employment for many project participants. Yet, specific Workforce development and VR policies did not fully support the establishment of such businesses. Grantees influenced systems in various ways to promote the option of self-employment for job seekers with disabilities.

Education, policy exploration, and leadership led a local VR agency to establish a business-representative position to assist customers interested in starting their own businesses. As a result of this and other research efforts, creative funding is now used at this site to support start-up costs and job-coaching needs. At another site, grantees noted that One-Stops did not have the knowledge or resources to support self-employment goals. Therefore, education and support was provided to the system regarding ways to use Workforce Investment Act (WIA) training dollars for entrepreneurial-skill development. Staff also found that securing funding for self-employment required relationship-building and training, and that when individual successes resulted, willingness to commit resources to self-employment efforts increased.

Keeping Attention on the Employment of People with Disabilities

As project activities and influence were time-limited, grantees faced the challenge of maintaining disability as a priority at the Local WIB (LWIB) level. In response, they established disability subcommittees within their local boards that advised the boards on the Customized Employment project, program-service sustainability, and employment issues, such as recruiting, hiring, and training opportunities for individuals with disabilities. These disability councils, which were made up of members of their respective consortia, targeted such goals as ensuring equal opportunity and access to the system, developing relevant policies, and identifying new or ongoing community initiatives concerning the employment of people with disabilities.

Promoting Staff Competencies

Customized Employment is a new and different way of providing employment services, particularly for the Workforce development system. To sustain quality services, it is essential that staff members have the knowledge and skills they need to meet the needs of job seekers with various barriers to employment. Many partners provided support through frequent trainings on Customized Employment to One-Stop staff and community partners. Some sites also developed a variety of online training opportunities, an easy and sustainable way to ensure ongoing staff training in spite of high turnover, low training budgets, and limited staff time. Additional methods of promoting staff competencies included identification of information in accessible formats at colleges and other similar organizations, development of videos, interviews and multimedia presentations to use for staff training, media outreach, and outreach to partners.

Instilling customized practices in a broad-based system requires intensive, hands-on training and oversight. A structure of partnerships is also needed to complement and support the services. As training in and of itself is often not sufficient to develop the required competencies, some sites also provided considerable technical assistance to community providers throughout the state.

To ensure that staff could effectively use the knowledge acquired through training, several sites added to staff competency standards and annual performance reviews the expectation of effective service provision to individuals with disabilities.

Shifting Perspective from Pilot Project to Broader Systems Change

The demonstration activities of the grantees acted as a laboratory in which local and state policy concerns could be identified and addressed. By demonstrating effective strategies to improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities, sites moved the disability-employment agenda forward in various systems, including state Workforce development, state departments of mental retardation, and Medicaid.

As the culmination of a multi-year initiative, one state established a comprehensive One-Stop Center inclusion work group that focused on universal access to One-Stop programs and facilities across the state. This project provided information and resources related to universal-design strategies to the Workforce development system, including a full report with recommendations highlighting strategies to enhance the site, program, and service accessibility of the system. As a result of these efforts, a systemic approach to ensuring universal access was integrated into statewide mandatory policies for One-Stops. And, to further assist the One-Stops in achieving equitable services and outcomes, the state workforce association was slated to provide a self-assessment checklist for One-Stops to be reviewed biannually.

Many sites explored Medicaid systems as a means of promoting employment for participants with disabilities. One project was able to provide on-the-job supports by using ongoing, extended funding through the Division of Mental Retardation Medicaid waiver, demonstrating how Medicaid funding could be adjusted to allow the use of funds for community-based, integrated employment instead of sheltered work.

Establishing a Design for Sustainability

Many grant-funded initiatives are considered pilot projects. Despite the time-limited nature of the Customized Employment funding, grantees designed their projects to maintain services and benefits via a sustainable process. Partnerships did this by developing work groups or subcommittees to consider the different approaches to long-term sustainability. One site created a think tank to address service-delivery architecture, employer and provider strategies, consumer and family involvement, and policy issues that hindered or fostered sustainability. The group identified lessons from project experiences, benchmarks for progress, and the value of the project's achievements with regard to the impact on people with disabilities. Lastly, the group outlined strategies to sustain or refine current approaches or, where appropriate, to develop new ones.

One partnership compiled sustainability teams that handled issues surrounding staff training, partnership, service funding, and capacity development. These groups were charged primarily with sustaining Customized Employment practices - primarily via the discovery process - within a given area's Workforce development system. By training and coordinating with community providers, these One-Stops, in collaboration with funding from VR, planned to continue to offer Customized Employment services through their overall network of resources. Leads and relationships with employers were in place to further formalize the business outreach teams that allowed employers a single point of contact with the system. The highly flexible service style of these and other One-Stops was identified as an essential element to sustainability.

Meeting the Employment Needs of Diverse Populations

Customers with disabilities are but one segment of the diverse populations served through the Workforce development system. Systems struggle to meet the needs of their customers with complex barriers to employment. As happened with curb cuts and electronic door openers, Customized Employment strategies became recognized for their benefits to the broader population. Grantees worked with mandated and non-mandated partners towards adopting Customized Employment solutions with the customers they served. These tools were used to develop employment plans for individuals at risk of being incarcerated. They were also incorporated into programs designed to address the barriers faced by many veterans, including disability, homelessness, long-term unemployment, mental health issues, and addiction.

One state's Transitional Assistance program implemented a Customized Employment model with Department of Public Assistance recipients (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/TANF). Under this model, program staff developed service teams, conducted assessments using the discovery process, developed profiles, and negotiated individual jobs with employers. The Department of Public Assistance funded these services based on the success of the Customized Employment project. Furthermore, family dynamics and involvement were quite influential in these efforts, which resulted in family discovery assessments being conducted and considered in the overall planning process.

Time-Limited Funding

While projects built foundations through the financial and technical resources provided by the grants, ongoing funding was necessary to support these efforts after the life of the grant. Sites looked to a variety of sources to expand on project accomplishments.

A Johnson & Johnson Foundation grant was awarded to one state, providing funding for a year of planning and infrastructure development to create incentives and expertise for supported employment as a sustainable service. As an expansion of supported employment, staff anticipated that the lessons learned through the Customized Employment initiative would have a direct impact on service sustainability. Project staff, together with state partners, developed models for state agencies to share costs when providing services for joint customers. The project planned to then adapt this model to assist state and city/local agencies in sharing costs and to create additional funding options for individuals with mental illness. Additionally, staff worked very closely with the state representative and chair of the Department of Human Services Appropriations Committee to discuss options for funding project activities.

The collaboration between one grantee and the MicroEnterprise Center in its state was a compelling model for replication in other areas. A key element that was most notable for sustainability was the use of low-interest loans. Traditionally, these loans have not been successfully accessed by customized self-employment ventures, as there has been very little connection between the two. However, access to these loans proved highly beneficial to the customers who qualified. This model compelled the Workforce Investment Board to provide a similar service based on a foundation they were in the process of establishing. With enough capital, the board would be able to create a revolving loan pool to provide the flexible funding that was the key to success in many of the project's efforts.


Design for sustainability.

Sustainability planning should begin at the onset of a project's implementation. Though specific program elements will be scrutinized, discarded, or refined, the question of how to sustain each aspect of service delivery beyond the life of the grant should be posed throughout. Work groups, such as strategic planning and/or sustainability teams, and subcommittees may be established to support the action planning necessary for long-term change.

Elicit multilevel stakeholder buy-in early in the process.

In order to realize sustainable systems change, project leaders must be invested in expanding partnerships and securing the support of key senior decision makers at the local and state level (e.g., elected and appointed officials, key state and local Workforce Investment Board staff, and key staff working within primary state and local agencies). Broad-based community support may also be achieved through communication of a project's vision and successes. When partners recognized the relevance of the project and the potential success it meant for their own customers, investment continued and the goal of improving employment outcomes was expanded.

Ensure team involvement in prioritizing sustainability.

As initiatives unfold, gems are often discovered in the least likely places. Throughout the process, multiple partners have potentially invested in and contributed toward the successes realized. It is therefore important to communicate with partners to identify and agree on the most effective and promising strategies to focus on for desired outcomes. Eliminate the ineffective, isolated services. This fosters ownership and continued investment in the mission.

Explore multiple partner resources to sustain desired activities.

Consider both monetary and non-monetary resources to sustain activities. A long-range funding strategy may consist of MOUs and/or Letters of Agreement with various entities that offer services to support employment outcomes. Additionally, leveraging the necessary political, technical, and regulatory resources further supports sustainability. Redirecting resources, and braiding and blending funding in new and creative ways on both systems and individual levels, will allow for non-categorical, flexible funding from a variety of public and private sources. Various approaches, such as offering incentive funding pools that prompt investment from other sources, the use of individualized accounts under the control of the consumer, and creating service collaboration teams may result in future partner investments and the maintenance of effective practices.

Market accomplishments and value-added to other programs, partners, and potential funders.

Clarify and communicate the value-added of the new model of service delivery or systems design using language that is well understood by the target audience(s). Highlight systems-change efforts and Customized Employment strategies to help others to understand and invest in these efforts. Personal success stories and case studies, which often have impact should include mention of benefits at the systems level, such as streamlined services and shared resources. Moreover, capturing and utilizing data can act as an effective tool to market and promote further investment. Not only does this promote buy-in, it increases the likelihood of the expansion of effective practices, as evidenced by the adoption of the Customized Employment model by state or local TANF, veterans programs, and the Juvenile Justice System.

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