Every nonprofit started with a great idea for serving people. The group may include people in a particular community or a group of people that have specific characteristics in common.
Either way, nonprofit boards face a world of uncertainties. The state of our society and economy has been fragile and unpredictable in recent years. How long has it been since your board took its pulse on its view of long-term sustainability? While periods of vast change are unsettling for nonprofit boards, they present opportunities to evaluate the nonprofit’s mission in light of whether it’s still relevant. Nonprofits that only meet the current needs of their constituents may succeed for the short term, but they’re destined to fail over the long term, leaving a great void of community needs in their wake.
Nonprofits that stand the test of time have boards that plan for and ensure long-term sustainability. Let’s delve into this issue a bit closer.
What Is Long-Term Sustainability?
What is long-term sustainability? If you were to throw that question out to your board, you might get a variety of different answers like the following:
- Earning enough through the sale of goods and services to be self-supporting.
- Achieving unrestricted funds for multiple years running.
- Investing and diversifying enough funds to be self-supporting.
- Being in existence in 10 years.
You might also get a few other assorted responses. Perhaps one of the best definitions of sustainability comes from Nell Edgington, a leading innovator in the area of social change. She defines long-term sustainability this way, “Nonprofit sustainability occurs when a nonprofit attracts and effectively uses enough and the right kinds of money necessary to achieve their long-term outcome goals”.
Considering these answers, how would your board define long-term sustainability now? If there’s any uncertainty, it’s best to put the topic on your board’s agenda and start talking about it so you can be sure your nonprofit continues to have the impact that its mission intended.
What Are the Challenges with Long-Term Sustainability?
Given the importance of long-term sustainability, let’s look at some issues that make it so challenging:
- Communities are often home to many small nonprofits that are competing with each other for limited resources.
- Large nonprofits can get bogged down in bureaucracy, preventing them from solving problems effectively.
- Some nonprofits make the mistake of taking on too many projects at once making it difficult to make progress.
- In some cases, nonprofit boards are fragmented in their goals and priorities making it difficult to make progress on any of them.
- Funding from governments and donors is competitive and scarce. Some boards spend too much time chasing funds that they’re not likely to get.
- Long-time board members aren’t always willing to embrace change. They’re not willing to let go of programs and activities they’ve been running for a long time even when there’s no apparent value in them.
- Board members are insistent on avoiding risks and operating too leanly to be successful as a result.
Your board can overcome these and other challenges that threaten your nonprofit’s long-term sustainability when you focus on the right areas and take steps to strengthen your efforts.
The Right Steps for Ensuring Long-Term Sustainability
Defining long-term sustainability and understanding what’s holding you back are good steps in the right direction. The next steps are to understand which areas are the most beneficial to focus on, how to give the issue scope, and how to develop a realistic plan for long-term sustainability.
To break things down, home in on the following four essential areas:
Within these categories, review the following specific ways to ensure sustainability.
First and foremost, your nonprofit has to create value for the people it serves for it to remain sustainable. Consider the following signs that your nonprofit is creating value for those it serves:
- Your board knows what impact your nonprofit should have.
- You know who benefits directly from your work.
- You’re clear on the indirect and long-term benefits of your nonprofit.
- You have a vision of what success looks like.
- You have a way to measure success.
Find the Right Donors and Financial Supporters
Lots of people and organizations support their favorite charities. One of your goals should be to find donors and supporters that are deeply invested in the work you’re doing and motivate them to contribute their funds, time, or help you establish valuable connections. Those are the funders that are likely to support your nonprofit’s work over the long haul. Here are some ideas of what to aim for:
- Corporations, foundations, and individuals that have a natural fit or share the same beneficiaries.
- Groups and individuals that want to be associated with your nonprofit for various reasons.
- Businesses or organizations where your cause contributes to their mission, responsibilities, or industry that are willing to partner with your board.
As part of your strategic planning process, invest some time in community mapping. This should be a continual process. Collect data on your current assets and needs. Put a plan together to access any resources you still need.
Think about things like these:
- People (align employees and volunteers who are invested in your efforts)
- Physical structures
Donors and Funders
Get better acquainted with your donors and supporters. Here’s what you need to know about them:
- What issues they care about.
- How they allocate their funds.
- When they allocate their funds.
- Who they know that they can connect you with.
It’s nearly impossible for nonprofits to be successful and sustainable without a little help from the internet. The right digital tools will help you create a sustainable brand, reach donors, and enhance your nonprofit’s reputation. Here are some ways to improve your online presence:
- Keep your website current and updated.
- Use social media to spread the word.
- Set up an online donor button.
- Recruit volunteers on your website.
- Send promotional information using email lists, online marketing campaigns, newsletters, and even texting (be sure to comply with anti-spam laws).
- Invest in a board management system like BoardEffect to store your important documents, create board books, manage your board cycles, share files securely, enhance communication, and much more.
Long-term sustainability is achievable. It doesn’t have to merely be a far-fetched hope or dream. It takes a skilled, results-oriented board that’s agile and adaptable to changing conditions and is committed to leveraging the right digital tools to make their vision come to life. When it all comes together, your organization has the potential to make a very big difference.