Vu Le, founder of the blog Nonprofit with Balls, writes funny, insightful, and intelligent posts about the nonprofit community including this great article, Can We All Just Admit There Is No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability, and more recently, Standardized Answers to the Sustainability Question, both of which I highly recommend reading. (I do wish it was called Nonprofits with Balls to be more inclusive.)
Like most things in the nonprofit community, the definition of the word sustainable varies widely depending on who you ask. As Vu Le indicates, funders are often the first to ask about a charity’s sustainability. It can sometimes feel like foundations are following a philosophy similar to a stereotypical bank loan officer's — only willing to give money if the charity can show that it really doesn’t need the money. My definition of a sustainable charity is pretty simple:
Basically, in my view, a charity is sustainable if it has a likely chance of staying in business
and effectively accomplishing its mission without burning out its best employees and volunteers in the process. As I said, pretty simple. A charity can have a sustainable business model without yet being sustainable. That would mean that the charity has a realistic business plan that will help it attain all the above requirements. Why sustainability is important depends on your perspective:
Foundations may ask about sustainability in their grant applications to ensure that a charity has given some strategic thought to long-term plans. They are not always expecting revolutionary answers.
I managed a grant program that distributed grants in increments of $10,000 or less. We asked about sustainability in our Request for Proposal (RFP) and had to rule out quite a few potential grantees because they had absolutely no plan on how to continue to raise money. Like the example above, we were giving them money to buy something tangible and if they were out of business in a year, our grant was useless.
Answering questions about sustainability is a bit like answering some of the common
questions at a job interview. Is anyone really going to say that their biggest weakness is that they have a bad temper and can't meet deadlines? Well, if you haven't interviewed many people, you may be surprised to hear what people will foolishly admit in a job interview.
Similarly, you might be surprised at how readily some charities will admit that they really don't have any plans for how to remain in business.
Although questions about sustainability can seem as mundane to charities who are well-prepared as standard job interview questions are to a well-prepared job candidates, the answers can be shockingly revealing and critical to the people and organizations asking the questions.
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