Your Ingenious Nonprofit
Karen Eber Davis
Leaders at nearly all nonprofits seek to be sustainable. Few are. Most have a plan they hope will work — it often depends on others such as governments, key donors, businesses, or even the weather the day of a special event. Inherently, sustainability that depends on something other than the efforts of your board of directors, staff, and supporters is not sustainability.
Is sustainability just the destiny of a lucky few? Is it possible for most nonprofits? From my two decades of work with nonprofits, I want to assure you that you can create a sustainable organization. It has little to do with luck. It has to do with identifying a practical income strategy and using it for decades in a consistent and focused way.
This column explores three sustainable nonprofits that have become institutions in their respective communities. I begin with their results. After all, what is the point of being sustainable without great outcomes? What results are needed? What I call Karen’s Platinum More Results: More mission and more income.
Platinum More Results from a 35-Year Focus on Individual Donation Income
Mission: 22 research and 23 education programs
Income: $18 million.
During his 35-year tenure at Mote Marine, Kumar Mahadevan helped Mote Marine Laboratory grow from a small research lab into a major institution. In the late 1970s, Mote’s senior leaders realized that to fund research—the Laboratory’s key goal—Mote needed to obtain individual donations from the local community. Research grants were never going to provide 100 percent of the funds needed. To grow donations, Mote began a long-term process. It started by expanding its youth programming by developing science education resources and summer camps. In the 1980s, Mote continued its effort by opening an aquarium. It now provides over $1,000,000 in operating support and 350,000 visitors each year. Recently, Mote added limited time exhibits to the aquarium, such as visits by penguins, sea lions, and now, Survivors-Beautiful and Extreme Adaptations. What is the goal of the programs, aquarium, and special exhibits? While these look like mission earned revenue enterprises since they provide earned income, their real function is to create and renew relationships with local donors.
Platinum More Results from a 20-Year Focus on Mission Income, Donors, and Government Income
Mission: Jobs and services for 3,000 special needs adults and a reputation as Las Vegas’ favorite charity.
Income: $26 million.
Opportunity Village’s income strategy focuses on three sources: mission earned income–50 percent; individual donations–25 percent; government funding–25 percent. To support government funding, staff continuously visits all elected officials in their offices in Carson City, Nevada, and Washington, DC. Official are invited to visit Opportunity Village campuses.
To support individual donations, among other activities, it offers a holiday multi-day event, called the Magical Forest, to the Las Vegas community. The event celebrates the holidays and brings a forest to the dessert.
To support mission earned income, Opportunity Village develops thousands of job opportunities, many by turning seeming disadvantages into advantages. See Find You’re Your Aces: Turn Your Disadvantages into Advantages  for more about this aspect of their work.
Platinum More Results from a Nine-Year Focus on Volunteers
Mission: Helps 137,000 Individuals Each Week.
Income: $148 million.
A critical constraint that The Food Bank of Houston found in providing more food to the community was the need for hands to organize food for distribution. For instance, the content of donation barrels must be sorted. To provide more mission The Food Bank of Houston’s in-kind strategy is to maximize volunteer hours. Executing the strategy includes being open 22 hours per day and state of the art sorting equipment that makes the task of sorting fun and interesting. The distribution center includes a conference center that is available at cost to businesses and community groups, who are encouraged to volunteer while on-site. Besides the mission and income results above, their efforts resulted in over 23,500 individuals donating 200,000 hours of their time.
Is it your goal to be sustainable? If yes, develop an income strategy. Use it for the long haul. It will:
- Shine as a beacon despite hurricanes, polar vortexes, and darkness. The day after your gala, board retreat, or grant submission, you awaken knowing what to do next.
- Create authorities on your staff. By focusing on the income streams in your strategy, staff will soon gain the 10,000 hours under their belt that Malcolm Gladwell tells us creates experts.
- Allow you to decline interesting but time sucking activities that don’t fit your strategy. Few entities can be experts in everything. Most don’t need to be.
- Challenge you to build good habits and excellent discipline.
- Provide sustainable income.
Long-term income strategies are lighthouses that everyone, from you, to your board of directors, to your staff, and your volunteers, turn to on moonless nights. Year after year after year, though light and darkness, a good income strategy guides. To become sustainable, determine your income strategy — then work it forever. Start today.