When to Begin Your Sustainability Plans

Like most nonprofit leaders, you have dozens of ideas to improve your nonprofit organization. Some involve one-time expenses, like adding a kitchen, developing a standard intake form, or a seamless computer system. Others require one-time expenditures and ongoing costs, like staffing. Finding funding for these ideas can be a challenge. When is the best time to plan for their sustainability? Below I suggest four times the advantage of each and examples.

Time Frame: Before Your First Grant

When you create a sustainability plan before you seek funding, you gain the opportunity to design the concept around its long-term use rather than a pilot. This timing allows you to incorporate sustainability expenses into your requests.

A nonprofit group home for young women with an education component sought to add a staff member. The person would pre-screen residents so that when vacancies occurred, they would be filled by people who would take advantage of the education. As we discussed their needs, staff disclosed that the community lacked a resource to help any residents in a housing crisis. Working with these residents supported their mission. The grant I wrote funded a full-time position that screened residents and helped the community. The award included funds to support individual fundraising, including the development of database, newsletter, and annual appeal. In time, because of the enormous service provided, an annual government grant program provided funding for the majority of the position.

Time Frame: When You Determine Outcomes

If your organization is healthy, you will try numerous ideas and discard almost as many. When you find one with reliable outcomes, continue it.

An organization provided two ongoing class series. After six months, their outcomes pointed to improved health, reduced emergency room visits, better personal maintenance, and reduced visits to their clinic (their original goal). Staffing was the most significant expense. The short-term benefits exceed the class’ cost, but since attendees were low-income, they were reluctant and unable to pay it. After studying sustainability ideas, I redesigned the class leadership to be a combination of volunteers, stipend teachers, and staff vs. the original design of 100 percent staff. The new design decreased overall costs, provided additional classes, and increased income. Best of all, the transition to the new model was funded by a grant I wrote.

Time Frame: Two-Years Before Your Program Ends

For multi-year programs, an ideal time to study sustainability is two-years before the current nonprofit funding end. Armed with your outcomes and an analysis of the activities that contribute most to them, you can focus on sustaining the program’s essentials.

Anticipating the availability of federal funding, I helped the workforce board developed a program for non-college-bound youth that garnered $100,000 in local funding. The following year, the board received one million dollars in federal funding for three-years. Later, when the federal funds were about to cease, I worked with them on new sustainability plans. This time because of the program’s proven impact, school principals found funding in their budgets to continue it.


When is the best time to plan for the sustainability of activities at your nonprofit organization? Sooner –rather than later. If you haven’t yet considered a sustainability plan for your successful activities, convene a task force today to generate ideas, and create multiple solutions. Piero Ferrucci tells us, “The amateur will stop at the first satisfactory idea, while the professional will generate a large number of ideas even if most are useless, and only then make a choice.”

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit  CEO Library.

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