January 1, 2015

Get Serious About Your Sustainability This Year

Nearly every nonprofit has significant, untapped opportunities to diversify and grow its income sources. The most innovative nonprofits tap them to create healthier, more sustainable funding.

Last month, CharityChannel Press published 7 Nonprofit Income Streams: Open the Floodgates to Sustainability! By month-end, on Amazon, it was the number one new release in “charities and nonprofit organizations.” Besides sharing how the income streams work for nonprofits like yours, writing the book taught me many insights not in it, like the insight above.

Asset Rich: Untapped Opportunities

Before writing the book, I hypothesized that sustainability was possible for all nonprofits. Every one of the more than 75 interviews I engaged in while writing the book, supports this assertion. In every mission area, some nonprofits thrive. Sustainability while an elusive beast, isn’t the abominable snowman or Loch Ness monster. Until now, it’s been too rare. The book makes it possible for more nonprofits to obtain it—in many cases, by tapping untapped opportunities.

“If we used government money,” shared Joe Carbone, CEO of The Workplace in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who funded fifty percent of a new initiative with corporate funds, “some businesses wouldn’t have been interested. They feared potential government interference.” When The Workplace launched Platform to Employment (P2E), staff raised over $600,000. Staff asked supporters to sponsor individuals who experienced long-term unemployment for $6,000 each. While P2E didn’t launch with government money, when it was successful, P2E attracted it. This year, the state of Connecticut dedicated $3.6 million for this effort, which moves the long-term unemployed to full-time employment.

P2E started with private money. When the opportunity was ripe, it moved to government funding. Staff at The Workplace saw a need and designed a solution. They viewed the world as asset rich and believed that they had untapped opportunities. Corporate income may not be your solution, but it is an example of an asset you might tap to create sustainability. Nonprofits achieve sustainability when they consider opportunities with the mindset that a solution exists.

The Abundance Mindset

Last spring, I helped design a workshop for 50 organizations focused on mission earned revenue, that is, revenue earned by providing services or products that also make the mission happen. During it, attendees heard war stories about twenty successful opportunities, their pluses, minuses, and challenges. Participants joined interest groups where they planned revenue opportunities. In short, they learned and worked with everything from “tires” to “engines” to build an earned revenue opportunity. The participants were thrilled, except for one. He complained that he wanted the presenters to tell him which specific revenue opportunity to seek. This is a version of “show me the hidden cash machine.” None exists. Nonprofits find sustainable income by understanding where the most significant pockets of revenue exist for them, examining ideas with this understanding in mind, testing the ideas, and building on the successful tests in their shops. Some ideas will work: Most will fail. One size doesn’t fit all. You can learn a lot from people who have “tried on the sweater,” but its still not your sweater. Sustainability is a custom job created in your trenches. Partners, such as advisors, help get you there faster, but it’s your leadership and labor that moves the ship to port.

Most of the workshop attendees left the workshop jazzed about what they might do and then used the information to begin. Nonprofits achieve sustainability when leaders believe: 1.) It’s attainable and 2.) You create if from the abundance at-hand, and, of course, 3.) You never give up. James Stockdale, the highest-ranking naval officer held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, uttered a quote I keep at-hand, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Getting Down to the Practical

Saying sustainability is possible is easy, but taking actions to match this belief: difficult. Here are some questions that will point you and your board toward action.

  1. Do we believe that sustainability is possible for us?
  2. What actions demonstrate that we believe this? What actions show we fear it’s impossible?
  3. Last year, how many income opportunities did we pursue? How many were new? How many did we disregard? (Hint: The total number should exceed twelve or one per month.)
  4. Do we evaluate opportunities objectively? If not, what criteria and process might we establish?
  5. What results do we expect for new initiatives launched in the last year?
  6. In what ways do we actively do everything possible to make new efforts succeed, such as seeking advice, studying other’s successes, and attending events?
  7. When it comes to mindsets, how do we feel about assets this nonprofit can tap? On the one to ten scale, with ten being high, for this not-for-profit, is the world a place of abundant opportunities or a competitive tiger-eat-tiger jungle?
Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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