Sustainability – it’s been a buzz word in the not-for-profit industry for several years, flowed through other sectors and has included an environmental slant.  Now, not-for-profit organizations of all sizes are questioning what it means for them and concerned with how to respond to the increasing demands for accountability in this area. 

The clamor for reassurances has grown louder as more funding organizations pose the sustainability question, which appears to resonate from donors.  In fact in the Camber Collectives’* report, "Money for Good ($FG) 2015," it’s noted that "donors lack trust in nonprofits and beneficiaries."  In fact, 49% expressed concern with "How the organization uses my $"

Based on their research the assumption is made that this is one reason giving levels as a percentage have remained virtually unchanged for 40 years.  It’s reinforced with their findings that there’s a high level of loyalty among donors to primary causes, (67%) and that only 13% of donors "plan to give to different nonprofits next year."  Underlying indications may point to concerns in the areas of sustainability or simply comfort in what they know.

So how do you define sustainability?  For some it’s all about funding, development plans and financial resources.  Undoubtedly, for donors in the aforementioned report it’s about more than dollars.  That’s why I challenge clients to think a bit broader and include the following "Sustainable Seven" as key areas in their sustainability discussions and planning:

1.  Responsive, engaging and well aligned mission, vision and goals
2.  Value added leadership and governance
3.  Strategic processes and policies
4.  Effective and efficient programming
5.  Targeted branding, marketing and communications
6.  Focused development planning
7.  Adaptive staffing initiatives (including volunteers)

Let’s take a quick look at a few of the highlights and considerations of each:

Responsive, engaging and well aligned mission, vision and goals

The organization must be certain it is responsive to the needs of the community and its service recipients, which should be reflected in its mission.  As somewhat of a guiding star, the mission needs to be clear, relatively concise and be the point from which the strategic direction and organizational goals cascade.

Value added leadership and governance

The Board and leadership of today need to have a clear understanding of roles and bring their unique expertise to the table.  A competitive advantage exists for the organizations with engaged, educated and intuitive board members who can be a valuable resource for professional staff.  They will recognize the fine lines between micro-managing and policy governance and ensure the efforts of the organization toward sustainability stay on track, through high level reporting and oversight.

Strategic processes and policies

The organization’s future depends on strategic planning with goals, processes and policies that are acutely aligned.  Today’s major donors are more savvy than ever and they want to be certain that the organization has a plan to deal with what may be and aspirations for what could be.

Effective and efficient programming

The clock is ticking on those programs that are not a good fit or stretch the resources of organizations.  "We’ve done it for years" will no longer hold as justification for continuation of services or events that provide no real positive ROI or hover outside of the mission.

Targeted branding, marketing and communications

With the proliferation of not-for-profits there has never been a more important time for organizations to get a handle on their branding and marketing efforts.  Limited funding demands targeted marketing but the good news is that with digital and social media that ability has never been easier.  Effective communications is the cornerstone for donor development.

Focused development planning

Some organizations are so concerned about their next event that they’re overlooking significant opportunities in donor development, grants or corporate partnerships.  It’s time to step back and potentially hire someone take an objective look at what you’re doing and then put significant efforts into building a development plan that nets the returns you need for the future.

Adaptive staffing initiatives (including volunteers)

In case you haven’t noticed the workforce is changing and generational differences are driving an evolution.  Unfortunately some organizations have been slow to adapt and are wondering "why," particularly when it comes to volunteers.  When talking sustainability, few areas will demand more creativity and flexibility than this one.

Not-for-profits come in all shapes and sizes it’s no surprise that those on the smaller end of the scale find the most difficulties in dealing with these capacity building issues.  Many have a shortage of staff to execute the processes necessary and will look to outsourcing to formalize sustainability plans, development or marketing plans.  However it’s done, it’s never been more important to do so.

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