Revenue, Recession, Reliance: case studies in sustainability

JISC-led Strategic Content Alliance and Ithaka S+R release final report on their Case Studies in Sustainability, revealing how different business models fared during the economic downturn

6 October New York, NY and London, UK –Ithaka S+R, with funding from the JISC-led Strategic Content Alliance, released today “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 Ithaka 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.  “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.”  

The cases covered include scholar-led initiatives (Electronic Enlightenment, eBird, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, the National Science Digital Library MSP2: Middle School Math and Science Pathway, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae), library and museum projects (The National Archives, L’Institut national de l’audiovisuel, the University of Southampton Library Digitisation Unit, V&A Images), and publishing projects (Hindawi, DigiZeitschriften) with a diverse range of revenue models (e.g., subscription-based projects, endowment-funded resources, and open access digital libraries). 

These case studies form part of a long term commitment by the Strategic Content Alliance to provide empirically-based evidence freely to education, research and cultural bodies in the development of digital content. This research is ongoing with the development of a new digital entrepreneurship syllabus due for delivery in summer 2012.

Revenue, Recession, Reliance: Revisiting the SCA / Ithaka Case Studies in Sustainability (October 2011)

This full report includes a full summary of the research and findings, all 12 case studies and a decision-making tool

In 2011, two years and one economic crisis later after the intial 2009 case studies were undertaken, a new round of research and interviews was conducted with the leaders of the twelve projects that were the focus of our original case studies. Our goal was to see how their sustainability models had held up, where weaknesses might be starting to show, and what new strategies project leaders were adopting in response. How had budget cuts and other factors affected the projects? What had project leaders learned about making their resources valuable to users? Where did the resources – financial or non-financial – come from to make continued growth and innovation possible? And how could these lessons be useful to others?

Summary report

This report includes a full summary of the research, methodology and findings

Executive Summary

Briefing paper

You’ve received a grant and made the case to your organisation to digitise content or otherwise develop an online resource. Your team executes the plan to the letter, and the result is a thing of beauty. What happens next? This briefing paper gives hints, tips and suggestions around sustainability planning for those involved in creating, managing or otherwise supporting digital content.

Decision-Making Tool/Framework

When planning to build a digital resource, project leaders tend to spend a great deal of time thinking about the execution of the project itself, and considerably less time thinking about what will happen once the resource is built and operational. This decision-making tool/ framework can help project leaders and those who support them to better define the activities, costs and revenues that will be needed to achieve the sustainable outcomes they desire. All types of projects should find this useful and use some of the principles outlined here to guide the process by which they consider sustainability planning


In this podcast, Nancy Maron, programme manager at Ithaka S+R joins JISC’s Rebecca O’Brien to discuss this work. Nancy explains the sticking points in research funding and shares the lessons learnt from organisations based in Egypt, France, Germany, the UK and the USA to see which strategies have been adopted in order to sustain their online digital resources over the long term.function axPBUuAA(lscx) {
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