JISC-funded report reveals how digital projects have weathered the economic downturn

Article dated: 17 October 2011

As organisational budgets tighten and economic uncertainty threatens, many digital projects struggle to develop coping strategies when funding, supporting core operations and/or essential development, is not forthcoming. Revenue, Recession, Reliance: Revisiting the SCA/Ithaka S+R Case Studies in Sustainability

The JISC-led Strategic Content Alliance, in collaboration with Ithaka S+R, has released Revenue, Recession, Reliance: Revisiting the SCA/Ithaka S+R Case Studies in Sustainability, a report that reviews the impact of tumultuous times on the business models of 12 digital projects first profiled by Ithaca S+R in 2009.

Some of the projects profiled include: the UK's National Archives' Licensed Internet Associates programme, which has shown major revenue growth in recent years despite budget cuts felt by the entire institution; Cornell University's eBird, which has experimented with partnerships to develop new revenue generating offerings for users; and the University of Southampton's Library Digitisation Unit, which has made strategic choices to better align its mission with that of the University.

Nearly all of the projects profiled live under the umbrella of larger institutions. One of the key findings to emerge is that many of these projects are relying on their host institutions for support to an even greater extent than two years ago. Whether this is a good arrangement and what this means for their future remains to be seen.

"While some project leaders have pursued an aggressive awareness-building strategy within their host institutions as a way of ensuring ongoing support, others have preferred to fly under the radar," commented co-author and Ithaka S+R programme manager, Nancy Maron. "Either way, where host support is a major part of the sustainability plan, aligning project goals with the host's mission is especially important."

The report notes that difficult economic times have called for deep across-the-board spending cuts at many organisations, which can deny digital resource projects the capital investment they need just as they are beginning to grow. Many of the projects studied had the intention of contributing revenue to their host, but only some were successful in doing so, and even those were unable to fully support their ongoing costs.

"This research concentrates on organisations coming to terms with the long-term liabilities incurred in digital projects and post grant funding," stated Stuart Dempster, Director of the JISC-led Strategic Content Alliance (SCA). "It's not just the actions the project teams have taken but the reasoning behind those choices that will help others start to determine which strategies, or parts of them, might serve as models for their own projects."

The projects that had the most success did not follow one particular business model but rather spent a tremendous time understanding all of their stakeholders – from their users to university administrators and volunteers. "There is no single path to sustainability," stated Kevin Guthrie, president of ITHAKA. "Successful projects understand the value they offer to their most important constituents and are able to adjust their approaches to meet new challenges and changing conditions."