Sustainability: The Nonprofit Joke

I recently had lunch with a nonprofit Executive Director (ED) who was lamenting about “sustainability” in the nonprofit sector. I empathized with her. It is always a question that funders ask, and yet there are few good answers. I remember completing several funder applications when I was a nonprofit ED, trying to sound hopeful about future revenue streams. We had some diversity – but not enough.

A few years ago, I was managing a funding opportunity. Ironically, our Advisory Council chuckled as we reviewed the RFP and came upon the infamous sustainability question. There are so few nonprofits that have a sustainability plan such as a fee-for-service revenue stream, or some kind of social enterprise. And, quite frankly, nonprofits weren’t created to generate revenue. They were created to help address social issues. That is their first priority. Yes – it would be great if all nonprofits could develop revenue streams that would make them less reliant of foundations, corporations and government. However, this is unlikely – unless we change the entire landscape of the sector. And that might not be a bad idea. But we all know how most people are resistant to change!

So where does that leave us for now? There is an opportunity for funders to create a safe space to have this type of delicate conversation. Instead of asking, “What is your sustainability plan?” ask the nonprofit if they want help in developing such a plan. Share ideas and suggestions – but let it be known that you are there as a partner to support and not to condemn. Explicitly recognize the power dynamics. As funders, you can’t change the dynamics, but you have the ability to change the conversation.

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