Nonprofit Sustainability

Have you ever wondered what it takes to sustain an organization’s efforts?* Is it just money? Or is it something more fundamental?

I’m thinking about this because we spent time at the Diaper Bank last week – our “grandchild.” There is such an extraordinary energy surrounding the work they are doing, and that feels so good to see. Is that from some super fundraising effort? No – it is because they are engaging folks in what the Diaper Bank is at its core, and that is building all sorts of momentum. That engagement is sustaining them in every way imaginable!

Perhaps I’m also thinking about “sustainability” because my birthday is rolling around again later this summer. And that brings up all the images of last year’s birthday, when my friends swept through my house and did all the fix-up work I had neither time nor inclination to do.

It felt amazing – WAY more amazing than if I had found the time and dollars to pay professionals to just do the work.

And I’m realizing that when we were talking with the Diaper Bank’s ED and board, it was clear that was what THEY were feeling. They were so obviously energized, excited, joyful.

So what does it really take to sustain an organization’s efforts? And how can that work be energizing and joyful?

When I teach sustainability in workshops, I always ask the group, “What is Sustainability?” Here’s what they tell me, every time:

  • Ongoing cash flow
  • Not being dependent upon grants or any other single source of funds
  • An endowment
  • A large pool of donors
  • Diverse funding sources
  • etc.

Then I ask what makes us sustainable in our real lives. And suddenly the room comes alive.

  • Health
  • Family
  • Love
  • Faith
  • Beauty
  • Fun
  • Food
  • Friends
  • Chocolate

People are smiling, joking.

Now imagine those same feelings of energy and joy when you talk about sustainability. Is that how it feels in your board meetings, in your fund development meetings? If not, is that perhaps due to the reactions we feel when we look at the two lists above? While one of those lists makes us smile, the other brings up thoughts of ‘just more work to do.’

For me, then, the frustrating part about the standard approaches to sustainability is this: Not only are those standard approaches not joyful – they also have not worked.

How can I say they have not worked? Well, how many organizations do you know that are truly financially stable? With all the books and workshops out there on building sustainability, wouldn’t you suppose there would be a LOT more sustainable organizations by now?

Looking at the Diaper Bank, though, and the extent to which their work is so deeply engaged in the community – well it reminds me of why my friend Dan Duncan from Tucson’s United Way told me years ago, “You couldn’t kill the Diaper Bank now if you wanted to. The community wouldn’t let you.” **

And so this week, it is exciting to see that even as we founders are now almost 3 years retired from running our “baby,” that the Diaper Bank’s approach is still about Community Engagement. They have seen firsthand that when we engage the world in the mission – at whatever level the world wants to engage – the money (and everything else) just takes care of itself.

I am always proud to crow about our “grandchildren” – both the Tucson and Phoenix Diaper Banks. But in this particular case, in these tough economic times when everyone is worried about money, it was especially heartening last week to spend time with them, to see that their main desire is to just engage the community in everything they are doing.

So perhaps that should be this week’s assignment.
Look at your to-do list today, choose one item, and for that item, ask, “How could engaging the community in this item make the results more effective?”

I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

* I have written pretty extensively about Sustainability at our website, including “Sustaining Your Mission for the Long Haul” and “Asset-Based Resource Development: How to Build and Sustain Strong, Resilient Programs.” Let me know what you think!

** Dan’s quote is from FriendRaising – you can read the whole Introduction to that book here.

And one last thing. While the title of this post is “Nonprofit Sustainability,” we cannot sustain our efforts if we continue to consider ourselves “nonprofits.” Sustaining “Community Benefit Organizations” just makes more sense, doesn’t it?

6 thoughts on “Nonprofit Sustainability”

  1. Aditya:
    I would love to see more engaged approaches used by for-profit entities as well. The focus of this blog is within the nonprofit / Community-Benefit sector, which is why the post focused there. But you are correct – if businesses focused more on engagement, they would indeed find life more sustainable as well. Thanks for the thought!

  2. Very interesting post, particularly the exercise with word association.

    The philosophy you are describing is exactly what we are trying to promote in Ashoka’s Citizen Base intiative. Your question “How could engaging the community in this item make the results more effective?” is almost word for word from a conversation I had the other day. The word we use is “citizen” , we call nonprofits “citizen sector organizations” and talk about that act of engaging the community as “building your citizen base or support”.

    I think we are calling for the same flip in mindset in the citizen sector 🙂 and how we approach ‘sustainability’ and ultimately the entire funding norm in the sector.

    Great post.

  3. Thanks, Dave! And I love the work Ashoka is doing with Community Engagement – thanks so much for your comment AND your work!

  4. Intresting topic.
    I am resoposible now for setting up a non-profit educational organization in Saudi Arabia and have to think very hard about its sustainability. Some of the factors that came to my mind to ensure sustainability are:
    (1) building intellectual capital
    (2) effective corporate governance
    (3) wide participations of all stakeholders
    (4) well-managed endowment fund; and
    (5) adopting a business model that ensures sustainability.


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