Ensuring your nonprofit’s sustainability

I’ve been asked to do a one-pager in a chart form for a particular agency to help guide their sustainability discussions.  Sustainability has become quite the buzzword among nonprofits, and it’s no wonder.  A significant number of nonprofits out there are in serious danger of failing.  A lot of people are doing a lot of analysis and scrambling for solutions.

I laud this very small nonprofit for bringing forward the issue of sustainability.  Many small nonprofits I encounter believe that they just need to find more money, and their problems will be solved.  It’s true, of course, that “more money” can solve a lot of problems, and free up resources to address other ones.  But it seems that nonprofits who are in desparation mode, spinning their wheels chasing money without a system or a plan, are doomed, I’m sorry to say.

One realization I had while working on this document is that planning for sustainability can be labor-intensive and a perceived waste of time.  It can be viewed as “navel-gazing” by staff and volunteers who just want to roll up their sleeves and get the work done.

However, in a report I encountered while doing internet searches on nonprofit sustainability, I read that organizations most likely to succeed are the ones willing to invest in the self-reflection, honest analysis, and think-work.  This document is from the TCC Group, and is written by Peter York.  You can find the document here: http://tccgrp.com/pdfs/SustainabilityFormula.pdf 

My advice for people who are involved with nonprofits is to put in the time necessary to learn nonprofit best practices that help ensure sustainability. It is hard to take time away from the actual work of the organization to put in this time.  I’ve been guilty of grumbling about being pulled into long thinking and planning meetings.  It’s hard to believe you can contribute anything worthwhile while work piles up at your desk.

However, I’ve also been involved with floundering organizations, and it’s not pretty.  Leaders begin leading through desparation instead of strategy.  Departments are asked to switch directions repeatedly.  Blame is distributed. Good staff members jump ship, and not-so-good staff members who are afraid they won’t be able to find another job flail around with unfocused efforts.  Mission and vision become little more than words on a document in a drawer somewhere.

The best organizations, the ones most likely to survive, are the ones that research what other successful nonprofits are doing.  Very generally speaking, the organizations most likely to survive are the ones who have the following:

–  Strong, decisive leadership that is also humane and inclusive

– A commitment to continually researching and contextualizing trends related to their organization’s issue area, political directions, constitiuent opinions, relevancy of programs and services, and community perceptions of their organization’s value to the community.

– Impeccable financial practices

– Strong relationships with key community leaders, grant-making institutions, and other entities whose goodwill can benefit the organization

– An institutional understanding of best fundraising practices

Even organizations who are patting themselves on the back with the knowlege that their organization can boast all of the above might do well to engage in some introspection, to ensure that there are no gaps or weaknesses.

I don’t anticipate that the environment in which nonprofits must operate these days is going to get any easier.


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