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5.3.13 Sustainability: Rethinking the most frustrating topic in nonprofit management


I’m a for-profit girl in a nonprofit world. At first, that sounds daunting, but really it’s not scary at all. The basics of good for-profit management apply perfectly to the challenges of leading a nonprofit. Know your customer. Serve them well. Seat an extraordinary team. Think big. Take risks. Manage costs. Generate revenue. Have more revenue than costs. Measure everything. Tell your story. Partner with purpose. Act with integrity.

Pretty simple, right?

For the most part, yes. However, there is one area I’ve struggled to translate effectively from the for-profit world to the nonprofit world and I fear many of my colleagues and stakeholders may suffer from the same dilemma.

The mind-bending topic at issue? If you run a nonprofit, I bet you’ve guessed it. SUSTAINABILITY. On a daily basis, nonprofit leaders are assigned the responsibility to achieve sustainability for their enterprise. In fact, there are conferences about it, demands for articulated plans defining it and a general assumption that we’ll all get there, or … predictably, our organizations will die.

But what does sustainability really mean? There’s a generally accepted definition that sustainability means you generate adequate program revenue to offset the expenses of your programming and the associated overhead to deliver those programs in a best-in-class manner.

On its face, this definition sounds reasonable. But it starts to fall apart when program revenues are defined as something other than grant funding, which is often the only or the most significant opportunity nonprofits possess to create revenue.  Now, before you blast this blog, I understand there are exceptions, but that’s not the point of this blog. The point is to guide those of us who provide crucial services to clients we can rarely charge to serve, through the murk and mud to a place of clarity about how we define and deliver sustainability for our organizations.

So, I’ve set out to unpack this idea of sustainability and release my brethren from the grips of an impossible task. Consider for a moment, a few of the following accepted definitions of sustainability:

The capacity to endure

The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld or confirmed

To keep in existence; maintain

To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for

To support from below; keep from falling or sinking; prop

To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage

To bear up under; withstand

To affirm the validity of

To prove or corroborate; confirm

Manage financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities (often referred to as profits, people and planet)

Meet the needs of stakeholders today, while protecting and enhancing the human and natural resources needed in the future.

Now, push these through the filter of your nonprofit. Better, isn’t it? Once you start to consider the complexity of what you do and the criticality of the work, understanding how to position your efforts in a manner that will endure, be supported, upheld and confirmed; and, protect resources for the future, it doesn’t seem so terribly difficult. After all, if you don’t already believe those things are true, you may have proven that your model is in fact, unsustainable.