Sustainability 101: What your nonprofit needs to know | npENGAGE

Sustainability 101: What your nonprofit needs to know

By on Mar 6, 2014


Sustainability.  It’s a big word packed with meaning.

When it was first bandied about, the meaning was all about ecology and the environment.  But, even then, it was about the core idea of endurance and lasting productivity.

Today, in nonprofit land, sustainability remains focused on these two core concepts, on the idea that decisions and investments need to be made to ensure long-term viability.

To be clear, sustainability isn’t about how long you survive.  It’s about thriving well, over the long term.   Ultimately, it’s about how you deliver on your mission, the impact you create in the world, not just today and tomorrow, but 50 years from now.

Given, the question is, how sustainable is your nonprofit?  Are your systems, processes, infrastructure, and plans crafted and funded with a view toward longevity?  It’s way too easy to simply say “Yes, we’re fine,” and move on.  It’s just as easy to say “No, we’re sunk,” and not know where to begin.  Neither of these are really great answers.  Why?  Because nonprofit sustainability is a moving target, something you should always be seeking to master while knowing that it takes continued care and feeding to get right.

How to get started?

  1. Keep a focus on your mission – There’s nothing like good old fashioned focus to ensure you stay on track.  Understand why you exist and how you deliver on your mission.  Ask yourself if you’re experiencing mission creep.  Make sure your strategic plan and goals stay front and center so you always have a clear idea of where your organization stands.
  2. Grow your funding – I know, we’re talking about sustainability, not fundraising.  But where will you be if you don’t have strong, healthy funding channels that produce the income you need to thrive?  Bottom line, the dollars matter, and it’s best if they come from a diverse array of sources.
  3. Craft your processes and documentation – Spend time and effort thinking about the processes you follow that keep you successful.  Do you have financial policies in place that audit your organizational health?  Do you have hiring, training and staff cultivation plans to grow your people?  Make sure you have written policies where you need them and guidelines where you might simply want to pass down key knowledge.
  4. Invest in infrastructure – Make sure your organization has the “plumbing” it needs to both deliver on what you promise today and thrive in the future.  Do a technology audit to understand what you need to meet your objectives, stay competitive and provide your people with the tools needed to do their jobs.  Harkening back to #2, make sure you are budgeting for this ongoing technology investment.  It’s not a nice to have anymore.  It’s a must have.

I know there’s MUCH more to consider when talking about sustainability, but this is a start.  It’s ok to struggle with the idea, to talk about it again and again to ensure you are healthy, strong and around for the long term.  The people you serve will thank you for the time and effort you take, always planning for the future and never thinking you’re done.


Rachel Hutchisson is the vice president of corporate citizenship and philanthropy at Blackbaud, headquartered in Charleston, SC.  She is responsible for the company’s global corporate citizenship efforts, a role that allows her to leverage her 20+ years of experience of working with nonprofit partners.  She is a member of the board of directors for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International, the Giving Institute (producers of Giving USA), and the Coastal Community Foundation.  She is also a Past President of the AFP SC Lowcountry chapter. Rachel is a graduate of Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and received a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she is a Renaissance Weekend participant and was the recipient of the Charleston Regional Business Journal’s Influential Women in Business Rising Star Award.  Rachel is an avid soccer fan and spends far too much time driving to remote parts of the state to watch her children play.  Connect with Rachel on Twitter at @RachelHutchssn or on LinkedIn.

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