4. Project sustainability

Throughout the duration of the INCLUSO project, the four pilot teams have been working towards sustainability. The word 'sustainability' means long term survival, and it means the same in the context of a social media project. So when pilot teams were setting up and running their pilot projects they were faced with the task of searching out factors which influenced its long term survivability.

Some of the factors were obvious, such as the cost of the social media tool. In this case, most of the options available to the teams were free of charge. But for how long? Take the example of the social networking platform Ning. It adopted a 'paid for' model in July 2010, so it was no longer free. Every community which uses the Ning service, and there are 10,000s of them, have had to consider whether it is worthwhile paying to continue using Ning or whether they should begin the search for a free replacement.

While the pilot teams were conducting their work, INCLUSO's commercial partner Netlog (a Belgian social nework platform popular in Europe and Middle-East) developed a list of factors, which it termed the sustainability criteria. Pilot teams used these criteria to monitor the pilot's development with respect to endurance and long term survivability.

The following criteria were monitored to chart the development of each pilot project towards sustainability:

Visibility Institutional acceptance
Reliability (consistency of quality) Embedding
Affordability Organisational impact
Scalability Impacts on working practices
Open standards Availability
Staff training Competitiveness

 After examining feedback gathered from the four INCLUSO pilot projects, ten essential guidelines for sustainability were distilled:

  • It’s crucial that an organisation decides whether its goal is to achieve financial self-sufficiency (and integrate the activity within already-subsidised activities) or simply contribute to the organisation’s bottom line (by generating income through various means).
  • The introduction of social media as a tool to support social inclusion involves investments. Making these investments profitable is difficult, but when provided with the proper financial and technical support resources, non-profit organizations can successfully engage in the creation of a social purpose project.
  • In order to realise the potential (positive) social impact and to be able to move from the 'experimentation' in the start-up phase to the next stage of development, the organisation considering a project in this area must have access to technical expertise, financial resources and adequate pre-development support.
  • A key success factor is the presence of at least one ICT-knowledgeable youth worker in this area. Without a single 'champion' within the organisation (someone who will spread enthusiasm about the potential of social media and share heir expertise), many of these successful projects cannot be launched or effectively managed. Assigning an already-overextended member of staff the task of managing a project is not an effective way of working. Not only should a single member of staff be charged with managing such an effort, but that person must also have the prerequisite skills and passion required to implement a project. Some opposition may occur, initiated by resistant youth workers or even middle managment.  In this case the champion will need enough support from the team and the management to proceed. 
  • There exists no single 'model' for setting up and sustaining social media projects in this area. There are only best practices. While there are certainly common lessons learned, issues confronted, and experiences shared, there is no single model for successfully pursuing projects in this area. Each organisation is different, constituting unique resources, players, capacity, and historical opportunities. The challenge is not to agree upon one single model for the field, but to develop, on the part of practitioners and others, the ability to draw upon a variety of best practices to most effectively respond to particular circumstances.
  • Effective funding of organisations, in which payment is often made in stages, must be part of a significant, long-term commitment on the part of the funders supporting such efforts. The projects which experienced the greatest success are those that could rely upon funding for significant, multi-year support in the form of both grant funds and staffing assistance. In the non-profit environment, it will take at least three to five years to be able to measure the full social impact. Organisations will not be successful without the presence and involvement of funding partners able to fully comprehend their challenge and make a long-term contribution to it. Visibility is important to raise sponsorship and as such increase sustainability for the future.
  • Organisations must understand the profound organisational changes entailed when starting a project in this area:
    • The planning involves intensive organisational reflection and often results in rethinking and refining services and processes
    • The introduction of social media changes the way information is gathered, reported and used. It challenges youth workers to use and interpret information in new ways
    • Training for youth workers is essential
  • Make use of 'free' social media tools.
  • Embedding is another key success factor for the implementation of social media tools within an organisation. The level of integration of the tool is key to the impact on working practices.  Social media tools should as much as possible support and empower existing processes in order to have maximum impact on outcomes and minimal impact on working practice.
  • Fail early, fail often. When you’re doing something new, failing is by far the best way to learn – so learn quickly.

A printable version with the summary of the 'The INCLUSO Sustainability Criteria and Business Models' is available for download togegther with other public documents in the Appendix: Downloads.