Beyond Immediate Wins

How to Achieve Long-Term Change for Capacity Building Programs.

If you ask funders and implementing partners involved in providing advisory support, training, or equipment and technology to enhance a recipient's capabilities for a specific mission — often referred to as capacity building programs — What's the hardest part of planning and delivery? — you're likely to hear people talk about the "sustainability" or "institutionalization" of a program's gains and successes.

The terms "sustainability" and "institutionalization" are shorthand responses for the goal that once the funder1 and implementing partners complete their delivery, the recipient will ensure the outcomes from the capacity building program, such as new structures, policies, procedures, or equipment and technology, endure over the long-term. In a nutshell, it's securing long-term behavior change among the recipients.

So, what does sustainability or institutionalization look like in practice? These measures can include program recipients maintaining a qualified cadre of staff who apply the skills they developed under the program and then who teach other staff these skills. Similarly, when a recipient dedicates their own funding to maintain or upgrade the equipment and technology provided under the program, we have greater confidence in the likelihood that the program’s outcomes will endure.  

But why is achieving lasting change so hard? We’ve seen recipients across programs encounter similar challenges, such as:

  • Difficulty in securing internal funding or obtaining access to dedicated funding
  • Dependency on external advising, training, and/or funding for the long term
  • Political and leadership changes or dynamics that reduce attention/support
  • Staffing challenges
  • Difficulty in communicating changes and their benefits to a broader group of recipients to achieve change on a large scale

Knowing these are the primary reasons that structures, policies, procedures, or equipment and technology developed or provided aren’t always properly maintained, we offer a few suggestions to promote their long-term application.


Start With the Goal in Mind and Develop a Joint Plan

Articulate clear steps for promoting sustainability and transitioning the initiative to the recipients as part of the initial program design. 

Funders and implementing partners should establish a clear roadmap at the outset of a program for when the recipient will assume ownership, including funding, for critical program components, rather than waiting until a program is several years into implementation and there is a potential risk to additional progress without continued funding. The roadmap should provide anticipated timelines, transition processes, and steps, as well as decision points where the recipient’s progress can be assessed against objectives, to determine whether they are on track to assume responsibility as anticipated, or if additional steps should be taken.  

If recipients are not taking steps toward sustaining capacity building measures, funders and implementing partners need to communicate to recipients the potential risks to ongoing and future support and be prepared to make difficult decisions, including considering ending support.  Recipients should also be transparent with respect to their priorities, and the availability of future resources to sustain capabilities. Open communication and a partnership approach among funders, implementing partners, and recipients are necessary to the achievement of recipients maintaining capabilities and enabling the broader team to identify solutions for addressing challenges as they arise. 


Plan for Depth and Resilience

Include different tools and creative options in the program design to achieve broader and more lasting results. 


One common practice we’ve seen is many programs rely on “train-the-trainer” processes —where implementers identify and train participants, who exhibit leadership skills and are excelling in the program area, to serve as future instructors to deliver training to other personnel on new structures, policies, and procedures. While train-the-trainer methods are helpful in rapid distribution and generating early enthusiasm and energy, the progress made is fragile when used alone. In some cases, these future instructors, who are often developing leaders, are rotated to other assignments with little transition time; training documents are sometimes not created or become outdated; and other leadership transitions may mean there is little accountability for continual training or staff committed to ensuring it’s effectively applied over time.  

If programs use multiple methods, both formal and informal, they can mitigate these risks. To complement train-the-trainer methods, for example, programs can incorporate a defined mentoring program, where all program participants are required to mentor a non-program participant on what they are learning from the program. This informal method helps spread knowledge and skills on a broader scale, while also increasing ownership among participants. 

We also encourage the use of innovative mechanisms to keep materials fresh and tailored that are intended to assist with institutionalization. One idea is to create a field leadership training board to review and update training content on a regular basis. This board can provide leadership opportunities for recipients to own the process of developing training content and could ensure field curriculum remains relevant to current conditions and the potential future state. Another successful technique we have observed is the use of simple visual tools for recipients who have low literacy levels. Capturing new structures, policies, and procedures in images can be a powerful way of communicating changes through easily understood formats. A final technique we would suggest is to provide guidelines in the form of checklists or other simple one-page documents. Checklists offer a practical way to reinforce new policies and procedures and can be easily updated.


Provide Incentives

Consider how best to incentivize recipients to take steps toward sustaining new structures, policies, procedures, or equipment and technology. 

Incentives can include a range of options. For example, with a foreign assistance capacity-building border screening program, a US Embassy may provide a certificate and recognition ceremony for the recipients adopting new technology and a training curriculum based on the program. Another option is offering additional opportunities to recipients based on their achievement of sustainability benchmarks in the current program. Working off the foreign assistance example, this may mean if a recipient takes on the funding of a new border screening capability and develops a training cadre, the US Government will recognize them as a regional leader and provide opportunities for the recipient to train and mentor other countries’ border security units.  


Set Realistic Expectations and Timelines

Dispassionately assess the environment in order to increase the ability to accurately plan for and communicate sustainability milestones. In other words: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Those of us in this field become personally invested in the people and goals of these programs.  This passion can lead to overly optimistic expectations. Even when you have a strong program design and very motivated recipients, barriers exist or unfold that make it difficult to maintain capabilities. This may be a deficit in funding, a new leader with different priorities, or a disaster that diverts attention.  

While we all want recipients to maintain their new capabilities and continue building on them, it may be better to consider accepting that sustaining certain capabilities over a defined amount of time is a success. Changing behaviors is incredibly hard, and even a 50% improvement is noteworthy. Funders and implementing partners can determine what percentage they deem a success, but the idea is not to strive for perfection, but rather to improve the current state over the long term. 



1. “Funders” or donors refer to the stakeholders who provide the financial resources, and in some cases, oversee the program, while “implementing partners” describe the actors who deliver the advisory, training, and material support.  “Recipient” in this context means beneficiaries, grantees, foreign partners, or any other stakeholder receiving the capacity building assistance.  


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