The project design or development phase presents a critical opportunity to ensure that key decisions reflect a concern for the sustainability of benefits beyond the investment period. During this phase of the project cycle, the design team determines what benefits the project will produce, by whom, and through what means. If these key design decisions do not develop a project that is inclined to foster sustainable benefits, the scope for achieving sustainability by project termination will be severely limited.

The broad theme for the project design phase is the cultivation of conditions that are conducive to benefit sustainability. All facets of a project—including project objectives, goods and services provided, beneficiaries, means of distribution, and implementing organizations—affect whether benefits should and can be continued once donor funding ends.

While project design has traditionally focused on choosing project elements that produce the intended outputs, project design for sustainability needs to adopt a longer-term, strategic perspective that selects project elements that lead to desired outcomes and beneficiary results over an extended time frame. Design decisions should support the critical factors for benefit sustainability.


Sustainability in projects can be an added value and profitable if we implemented in the right way.

For most projects the following factors determine whether or not benefits will continue to be realized after the termination of donor funding.

Client-responsive services

To develop an enduring constituency for benefit continuation, the specific project benefits must address a recognized need of the target population. Therefore, deciding on which benefits to deliver is predicated upon identifying the target audience and eliciting from that audience information about what benefits they desire. Needs are not stagnant, however. Therefore, benefits should be designed with sufficient flexibility to respond and adapt to changes in demand.

Strategic management capacity

Implementing organizations and the people who staff them are crucial influences on whether or not benefits continue. Individuals, supported by the organizational culture and standard operating procedures, need to recognize and work toward longterm objectives, acknowledge and account for opportunities and threats in the external environment, and adapt the organization and its products to continually meet evolving needs.

Supportive institutional environment

Although many external factors are beyond the direct control of project managers, they greatly influence whether benefits will be sustained. Such factors include the policy and legal framework, bureaucratic culture and procedures, social norms, and economic and political conditions. In some cases, project managers may be able to influence their environment to make it more hospitable. In instances where the environment is less amenable to change, project design should acknowledge and accommodate potential constraints.

Adequate resources

Benefits will not be produced without adequate resources—Financial, human, natural, and technical—to sustain them. Since development projects typically provide financial, and often human and technical resources, benefits cannot continue postproject unless resources have been transferred to or can be acquired by the appropriate host-country organizations. Natural resources are finite and must be used responsibly to ensure their continued availability for the development of future generations.

Assuring that these factors are in place implies different priorities and concerns for project design that transcend the issues that are important for mere effectiveness. This additive consideration is illustrated by juxtaposing effectiveness and sustainability questions below.

Compression of effectiveness and Sustainability issues in project design

The benefit sustainability questions encompass the more conventional effectiveness issues while adding a longer-term perspective of benefit continuation. This perspective invites other, less traditional considerations for project design.


Could we start this implementation from the design stage?

Yes if we start with those general steps:

1. Specify which benefits should be sustained after life-of-project, and for which benefits sustainability is inappropriate or unfeasible.

For all the benefits to flow from a project, designers should determine which do not need to continue, which are critical and will have the necessary support to continue, and which are important but may not be sustainable by the end of the project.

2. Choose an appropriate implementing organization, given the type of benefit, capacity of alternative organizations, and institutional environment.

In general, private sector organizations should be emphasized. Existing organizations, especially strong ones and those favored by the institutional environment, are preferable to new organizations.

3. Fashion the project to ensure critical factors for sustainability: market-responsive benefits, strategic management capacity, adequate resources for benefit continuation, and a supportive institutional environment.

Market responsiveness should be determined through a participatory process. If organizations lack demonstrated strategic management performance, capacity building must be an integral part of the project. To ensure adequate resources, mechanisms such as fees-for-services need to be devised and incorporated into project design. Finally, determine how the institutional context can and should be influenced to improve the environment for continuing benefits.

4. Organize the project to be implemented, monitored, and evaluated for sustainability and allocate resources for these purposes.

Planning for sustainability should be explicit, and project managers and implementers must be held accountable.


The following are specific activities to help accomplish the above actions. The activities are not the only appropriate or available approaches; they represent select methods that have proven successful under a variety of conditions. These activities support the design theme of developing a project with conditions that encourage sustainable benefits.

  • Developing a Scope of Work is a routine step for building a design team to ensure that sustainability is addressed.
  • Holding a Team Planning Meeting is a common tool for launching a project development effort. However, it can also be used to stimulate a sustainability perspective.
  • Although Stakeholder Analysis is initiated during the identification phase, its application in the design phase allows for a broader and more in-depth analysis.
  • Conducting Sustainability Assessments is the key means for identifying sustainability opportunities and constraints, and incorporating them into project design.
  • The Logical Framework is a fundamental product of project design. Therefore, it should explicitly reflect a concern for sustainability.

More about: Sustainability in project management

Adapted paper from Executive Leadership Institute Portland State University


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