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Not An Impossible Dream: Three Steps to Sustainability

Your Ingenious Nonprofit
May 2014
Karen Eber Davis

Most nonprofits seek and need income sustainability. Most nonprofits hope to achieve it—someday.

Instead of making sustainability a hope and a dream for the future, determine that sustainability is possible for your nonprofit and within your control. Take a step into the future. Decide to be sustainable. Trade your someday for that day.

The day needn’t be tomorrow. By all means, set the date in the distance. Do make it within the decade. When my husband and I were married we set a goal to have children in five years—a date that seemed like forever. Looking back, it arrived with amazing quickness. We had our first child before our sixth anniversary.

Once you commit to being sustainable, you will need to decide what sustainable looks like for you, the actions you will take, and set to work. This article shares the overall process to use to achieve sustainability.

Steps to Sustainable  

1. Define Your Sustainable

“If any one funding source is pulled away, we, Alpha One won’t be left out of the water,” shares Dennis Fitzgibbons, Executive Director of Alpha One, a Center for Independent Living that serves Maine. To be sustainable, Alpha One developed a collection of income streams including earned revenue programs such as Adaptive Driver Training, Return to Live, and mPower.

Sustainability involves setting a goal to be funded in specific ways. A very simple plan for sustainability is to obtain 50 percent donated income and 50 percent earned income.  You will want to determine your sustainable income streams and their weight.

To define your sustainable, review the income streams available to your nonprofit. Make a short list of desirable options. What income streams best fit your mission and culture? How do other nonprofits in your genre become sustainable? If you held sustainable in your hands, what income streams would weigh the most? The least?  Create your strategy by mixing and combining the seven nonprofit income streams including mission earned, donated, government, foundations, corporate, other income and in-kind. (For an in-depth review of your options, reserve your copy of 7 Nonprofit Income Stream’s here.)

Avoid defining sustainable to be less of something. Many nonprofits decide to be less dependent on a funding source and to maximize other revenue. In practice, this becomes a wild, occasionally frantic, reach to tap every dollar of income possible. Over time, this generates a sinking feeling. Sustainability seems more elusive than ever.  A sustainability strategy is inherently different. It states this is how you will be funded, not what you shun.

Also, consider the control you have over each funding stream you select. Prefer funding streams where you have more of influence. Earned income, in-kind gifts, and individual donations offer more control. Government, foundation and corporate grant funds offer less. Since the latter sources are more limited, they offer less control. You’re more sustainable when you are funded by sources where you can obtain more income by increasing your efforts.

What will sustainable be like at your nonprofit?

 2. Plan Actions

Base your plans and actions on proven knowledge and your experiences. How much income do you need from each income stream? Within the funding streams selected, what specific income activities make the most sense for your organization in terms of your needs, time, and skills? How will you obtain money from each stream? While too many unknowns exist to plan in detail for next year, you can determine what will you do to be more sustainable tomorrow, this week and the next three months. The most important action is what you will do next. Write the date on your calendar of when you will accomplish it.

Twenty years ago, Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota came to grips with an income challenge. Mote’s leaders realized that research grants were never going to be sufficient or consistent to pursue its mission of scientific research about the sea. In response, Mote decided to engage the local community in their work, with the long-term goal of earning individual donations. In response, they developed children’s program, an aquarium, and special exhibits, such as penguins, and sea lions. The aquarium provides a million in revenue per year and donations grow. Motes sustainability began with the decision to engage the local community. At first, it added education activities for children. The rest evolved over time.

What will you do this week to be sustainable?

3. Be Intentional and Disciplined

Sustainability results from consistent stone upon stone upon stone work over time. It comes sooner when all of your income activities and most of your nonprofit activities contribute to sustainability in some way. How will you use the meeting you attend today to move you toward sustainability? How is your receptionist helping you to be more sustainable? Does he or she understand her role? How are your board members contributing?

Las Vegas’ Opportunity Village’s sustainably strategy involves these three income streams: mission income, individual donations, and government funding. Staff actively works to maximize each. Government funds are supported by visits and invitations to all legislators in Carson City and Washington, D.C. Mission income is supported by job development programs that focus on their customer’s unique advantages. (See columns.) Individual donations are supported by community events with a Disney-like equality including a Santa Run and the Magical Forest. The organization continues to work at all three income streams to keep them flowing.

How will your next three meetings improve your organization’s sustainability?

What goal do you have for each?

Develop a Forever Income Strategy. Does your nonprofit have a customized strategy to obtain income? To develop it, help your nonprofit’s leaders understand how nonprofits obtain income in general. Determine how other nonprofits in your sector become sustainable. Then, make your customized strategy and plan your actions. Put a date on the calendar to be sustainable even if it is years out.

If the date for your sustainability comes and goes without your having achieved it, so be it. Sustainability, like parenthood, can be achieved, but it is never done. Both are lifelong works of love. The important things are to set a date to begin the work and love.