Sustainability Requires Continuous Maintenance

A good way to increase sustainability is to continuously improve in a few vital areas.

Focusing on the following areas will help to improve the long-term sustainability of your nonprofit:

Greater Financial Strength – Larger reserve, better cash flow, more working capital, etc.

Growing Stakeholder Support – More donors, volunteers, referrals, and advocates

Improving Outcomes – Outcomes that are more durable, consistent, reproducible, scalable, meaningful, and measurable

Services Quality – Increasing the relevance and value as well as the breadth and depth of services

More Donor Support – Reduced donor attrition, increasing donor generosity, and more donors recruiting new donors

Sustainability improves when every area improves concurrently.  It is hard to sufficiently increase the sustainability of one area to compensate for an area that is stagnant or declining.

Building sustainability is an endless process.  It is a small incremental investment in the future which happens every day.  Some days sustainability grows a little and some days it suffers a setback.  If each day client engagement improves a little, the cumulative effect is improved client outcomes.  However, one client’s bad experience can diminish the engagement of all of the clients that day.

The intangibility of sustainability makes managing sustainability difficult.  In most cases, it is best to talk around it rather than about it.  In effect, treat it like a benefit derived by achieving something else.  Rather than talking about sustainability, talk about improving long-term outcomes because measurably improving outcomes will contribute to improving sustainability.  Besides, improving outcomes is mission centric and provides your staff, board, volunteers, and donors with many emotional benefits when it occurs.

Since sustainability requires daily maintenance, everyone’s goals must be focused upon providing incremental improvements.  However, the definition of incremental depends on the perspective of the individual.  Board members might meet once a month and do very little between meetings.  Therefore, it is impossible for them to make a daily contribution to improving sustainability.  However, they can focus on establishing goals that encourage the staff to improve sustainability (improve the average durability of client outcomes from 10 years to 10 years and 3 months) or create policy that focuses attention on sustainability (improving client engagement is more important than keeping costs within budget).  The board’s participation in improving sustainability depends on the board development committee’s commitment to training the board to think about how its goals and policy setting influences the staff’s success.

Next Step:

Keep sustainability in mind when setting goals

Educate the board about its role in increasing sustainability

Create a set of metrics that predict your sustainability trend

Report the sustainability trend to the board quarterly

Preparing for retirement often means saving a little money every day.  Each day’s worth compounds and over time produces a more comfortable future.  Conversely, waiting to fund one’s retirement makes having a comfortable retirement less likely.

Sustainability for your nonprofit is the same as your personal retirement fund.  Without a daily contribution, long-term sustainability will be difficult and it many cases impossible.  If your predecessor had been more concerned about sustainability, how much easier and more comfortable would it be for you to manage your nonprofit?  Put another way, doing what you can each day to improve sustainability will ensure that you leave your nonprofit much better than you found it.  That is a legacy to be proud of.

Take It Further:

What cultural changes do you need to make to strengthen your nonprofit’s commitment to sustainability?

What do you need to do to help your board see how important the board is to long-term sustainability?


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