What is sustainability? A huge Illusion

So often non-profits hear from institutional funders that they want the organizations they support to magically reach what they call “sustainability”. I’ve been in the non-profit performing arts world for over thirty years and I have no idea what sustainability means. I believe that what our well-meaning funders really mean by “sustainability “ is, “Please tell us this is the last gift we need to give your organization” or “We really cannot keep funding you year after year. When will you reach, sustainability?”

In the areas of ecology and biological systems sustainability means (according to Wikipedia) the capacity to endure, to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. But this only has a loose connection to what funders mean. I cannot find a definition that links a grant to something that will allow any non-profit to remain productive without further support.

Now if a donor made a gift that created an endowment fund and the corpus then became equal to…….. ………twenty times the operating budget, then a 5% annual payout may in fact create a flow of funds that could possibly be defined as “sustainable”

But that is not going to happen. Because sustainability is an illusion.

So what can be done? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be Honest with your major donors and let them know that while their gift is very important, it will not create “sustainability”.
  • Educate your donor and help them understand that fund raising is an on-going annual process. All non-profits (unless they do have that magic endowment equal to 20 times their budgets) must rely on a combination of earned and contributed revenue.
  • Do not agree that a grant will create sustainability just to get the grant, that in the end will never create the sustainability you just agreed to.
  • Repeat the above.

And one more item. It’s vital that your board understands that sustainability is not something that can be achieved. Your organization will always need to raise funds. And that is not an illusion; it’s the truth.

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