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Sustainability is more than just Fundraising

We all know the question. It is written differently in each RFP but the funder is asking the same thing. “How will you financially sustain the grant program after the grant period?” When you see this, you probably roll your eyes and then include some language about a robust marketing and communications strategy as well as having a portfolio of other revenue sources, right?! Well, while the answer is not always so clear-cut, I think we should think about this question from the funder's perspective.


Let's say a friend of yours who is notoriously inept at saving money asks you for a $1,000 loan. Wouldn't you want to know when you will be paid back? I imagine so, and funders think the same way. They know your outcomes may take place in the long-term, but they want to know that your organization has the capacity, expertise, and strategy to use their funds wisely.
Capacity: Are you deeply entrenched in your community and connected to your target audience? Have you managed large amounts of funding previously and have robust board oversight? Instead of focusing on fundraising as a means for sustainability, think about how you have effective internal controls to manage funding and implement change and growth within your organization.
Expertise: Are you a new or established organization? Either way, you will want to have evidence to showcase your understanding of the target population's needs and how you are serving them effectively. This is where a robust evaluation strategy can come into play as well as collaborations with other organizations, government agencies, elected officials, and funders. Participation and/or facilitation of community-wide working groups can also be shared, as well as advocacy efforts and awards received.
Strategy: What does your strategic plan look like? Is this aligned with your fundraising plan? A comprehensive needs assessment and implementation plan can showcase that even if you don't have a deep history, you are thoughtful in your approach to address the challenges that face your target population. By providing details about your strategic planning process, this provides a funder with evidence that you are forward-thinking about how you oversee programs.
So, what does that mean when you have to respond to the dreaded question of sustainability? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Include information about your organization's internal controls.
  2. Provide details about your board of directors and their ability to govern your organization.
  3. Include information about longstanding, unique partnerships and/or the breadth of collaborations you have in the community. This includes facilitating and/or participating in working groups.
  4. Detail any awards, recognitions, or honors your organization has obtained and/or advocacy at public hearings on behalf of your target population.
  5. Outline your approach to developing a needs assessment to address the needs of your target population.
How will you answer the sustainability question in your next application?
Rachel Werner is the Owner and CEO of RBW Strategy, LLC and provides grants and project management consulting support to nonprofits, government and business entities.
GPC Competencies: 02. Organizational Development; 04. Effective Grant Applications; 06. Ethical Practices; 07. Professionalism 



By: Tom Warhol
On: 04/25/2018 11:06:33
Thank you, Rachel, for a concise and thorough way to look at this often vexing question. I'm keeping your article as a reminder when answering the sustainability question.
By: Mary Penn
On: 04/25/2018 16:59:26
That is so interesting, to compare the work of nonprofits to a deadbeat friend "borrowing" money! It just takes my breath away. Moving on to the issue of "sustainability" -- what I would like to say the next time a funder asks about that would be something like: Our programs would not need to exist, were it not for the extremely unsustainable system of free market capitalism that has created a monstrous gap between the rich and the poor. Nonprofits essentially "prop up" a capitalist system that ignores the disadvantaged and those that require a helping hand, due to systemic inequality.
By: Cyndi MacKenzie
On: 04/28/2018 14:02:25
Excellent points!

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