Nonprofit Sustainability – It Takes More Than Money

Have you realized that “changing the world” is really hard work? You had what seemed a great idea (if you’re a founder), or found a job (if you’re the ED) that seemed like the perfect combination of passion and purpose, to do something to help hurting humanity or make a difference in your community. However, now it now seems like you’re mired in lots of administrative (seemingly trivial) tasks. These take place “behind the scenes” or “beneath the surface” but are necessary to keep the doors open and lights on so you can deliver the programs and services that meet the needs of your clients and produce to the results (outcomes or impact) that lead to a better world.

Did you know that in the course of making a great impact on your community you would also have to build a great organization that is sustainable and consequently can sustain your work for the long haul? Well, perhaps its better that you didn’t know all that would be required to create sustainable change because you might not have begun.

Nonprofit Sustainability PuzzleHowever, now that you’re fully committed to the vision and engaged in the work, do you realize that it takes more than money to have a sustainable organization? Oh don’t get me wrong, money is absolutely essential to long-term sustainability. However, there are several other pieces to the sustainability puzzle that are needed for others to view your organization as worthy of their financial investment and support.

We take a holistic approach to nonprofit sustainability and suggest you do as well. In our view, there are at least 10 areas of organizational development that, at some level, are all necessary to create an environment that fosters long-term sustainability. We’ve also identified principles and practices in each area that promote, or enhance, your sustainability.

Let me provide a very high-level introduction to these ten areas:

Mission and Strategy

Every nonprofit organization should have a clear purpose (vision and mission) that crystallizes its reason for existence and mobilizes its energies and efforts towards fulfilling its goal(s) and accomplishing its mission. Each organization also needs a strategy as to how they best do this. David La Piana defines nonprofit strategy as “a coordinated set of actions aimed at creating and sustaining a competitive advantage in carrying out the nonprofit mission.” This goes beyond having a mission statement and a strategic plan (though both are needed); you need something that focuses your organization like the bullseye focuses the archer.

Team Leadership (board and staff)

In order for a nonprofit to succeed long-term you must develop strong leadership that is shared between both board and staff. It’s impossible to have, or sustain, long-term excellence in a nonprofit led by a mediocre board. There are certain functions in your organization that only the board can do and others that are best done by staff members.

Accountability and Stewardship

All nonprofit organizations, regardless of size, budget, or scope of work, must ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect and preserve the public trust. This is accomplished by ensuring policies and procedures are in place for board and staff to assure clients, supporters, and stakeholders that you are guarding their trust.

Marketing & Community Engagement

Nonprofits can’t be sustainable by remaining “one of the best kept secrets in the community.” Your clients, volunteers, collaborators, and funders must know who are you are, where you are, what you do, and how to find you.

Programs & Outcomes

Your programs are the essence of your organization. However, it’s not enough to do good work – you must document the work you do and leverage the results you produce to garner additional support, resources, and investment to continue your programming.

Human Resources

You can’t provide programs apart from people, whether they are paid or volunteer staff. As Jim Collins noted, “People are not your most important asset, the right people are.” Sustainable nonprofits develop processes for managing both paid and volunteer staff, (including policies and procedures) and develop ways to recruit, retain, reward, and recognize staff.

Partnerships & Collaboration

No individual organization or actor – no matter how large their assets or how efficient their processes – has the resources required to single-handedly produce meaningful change” (Monitor Institute). Sustainability requires your organization be an integral part of the continuum of care in your community with a healthy process for maintaining partnerships.


Far too many nonprofits are deficient in infrastructure and lack the tools needed to do their job. Sustainability requires you address all the back office systems and processes needed to keep your organization and programs functioning, including administration, HR processing, communications, and computer equipment.

Strategic Funding

At the heart of nonprofit sustainability is a robust business model and economic engine that generates sustainable sources of funding. While many organizations seek to find the “golden egg” in a grant or gift, what you really need is a gaggle of golden geese that continually generate income through a variety of sources.

Resilience & Foresight

Last, but not least, you need a culture that combines foresight and resilience. You benefit from actively engaging with community leaders and influencers and by studying trends and patterns to anticipate future needs so that you can be resilient with programs to meet those evolving needs.

Each of these 10 areas represents one piece of your sustainability puzzle. However, what’s needed most is a way to connect these pieces together in a holistic, or comprehensive, fashion so that collectively these elements work together in harmony to address and enhance your sustainability. Sustainability planning is unique for each organization as each organization has its own distinct collection of strengths and assets and is at a unique place in its life-cycle. Therefore, sustainability planning should take all of these factors into consideration and begin by working where you are with what you have and building from there.

Sustainability Planning ToolkitsThrough the remainder of 2011 we’ll devote one month to unpacking each of these 10 areas and discussing the principles and practices that will help you enhance your sustainability. For additional help identifying and implementing strategies that will enhance your sustainability, we invite you to join us for one of our webinars that explores this deeper or consider purchasing one of our Sustainability Toolkits; two focus exclusively on program sustainability while the others explore organizational sustainability.

Sustainability is a quest, a journey and ultimately it touches all parts of your organization. By addressing all the pieces of the puzzle not only will your organization become more sustainable, you’ll also become more attractive to a variety of funders.

One thought on “Nonprofit Sustainability – It Takes More Than Money

  1. Bill Huddleston

    One of the often forgotten benefits of workplace giving is that it provides ideal opportunities for staff to develop and practice their leadership skills. If you would like my article that about using workplace giving for leadership development, please send me an email with "leadership" in the subject line and I'll be glad to send it to you. Thanks! 
    billhuddleston1 at gmail dot com.


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