For the past several years, more and more funders have become focused on sustainability. Most grant applications now ask you to answer The Sustainability Question, which is some variation of: “How will your organization sustain the program after the funding period ends?”
As a development adviser, I have worked with many nonprofits whose response is limited to the financial aspect of their sustainability. But organizational sustainability is much more than revenue. To develop a strong, comprehensive response to The Sustainability Question, you have to address the financial, programmatic, and leadership aspects as well.
At its core, The Sustainability Question tests your future-oriented planning skills for the organization in terms of finances, programming, and leadership. This post covers the strongest answers, what to do if you don’t have the strongest answers, and additional resources to help you on your way.
The strongest answer
As our video outlines, funders want to see that you have:
- Strong, diversified funding streams
- Data-driven, effective programming stemming from a commitment to continuous improvement based on constant self-measurement
- A highly engaged, experienced leadership team (both board and staff) that brings a lot of assets and partnerships.
- In other words, funders want to know that others believe in you and that you’re a good investment because you can leverage their dollars thanks to a long-term plan to cover your financial and programmatic capacities.
The strongest answer addresses:
DIVERSITY OF FUNDING SOURCES
- Demonstrate that you have a good mix of grants, individual donors, special events, earned income.
- Mention a few large grants that are already secured, or that you anticipate renewing.
- Explain your plan to continue/strengthen your fund diversification, and/or a plan to raise more funds. Mentioning things like “individualized board member action plans,” “annual development plans” and quantifiable fundraising events helps to strengthen their confidence in your development plan.
- If you have strong numbers, include dollars raised / growth in certain funding streams.
ENGAGEMENT OF LEADERSHIP (BOARD AND STAFF)
Funders want to see that your leadership is engaged and invests in your organization in both time and money. If you have any of the following, mention them:
- 100% participation (meaning 100% of your board (bonus: leadership and/or staff!) donates to the organization voluntarily. Some organizations set a minimum donation, others do not. You may need to amend your bylaws to mandate 100% participation. Modeling financial contributions proves the leadership’s belief in the organization.)
- Give/get requirement (the minimum amount that each board member must personally donate or fundraise in order to be on the board is stated in the bylaws)
- Board Fundraising Committee (to strategize, oversee, and support fundraising activities)
- Individualized Fundraising Action Plans for each board member (outlining specific network introductions, for example)
- Board Commitment Form for each board member (e.g., agreeing to: participate in a certain number of fundraising events, donate a certain amount; or to recruit/introduce a certain number of new potential donors)
- Ambassadors (board and staff should always be talking about your organization to raise awareness and recruit new donors)
- Outline your Annual Development Plan which comprehensively lays out all your fundraising activities for the year.
- The Annual Development Plan guides your work to accomplish your fundraising goals.
- The plan should include planned grant submissions (by month/quarter–include the ask amount); the number of special events and/or donors/major donors to be solicited; and the budget needed to be raised. Outlining your specific activities shows funders that you have a plan in place to guide your work strategically.
- Show your commitment to constant improvement in both your operations and fundraising by using phrases such as:
- “This year, we plan to significantly increase our revenue by ….”
- “Based on the success of past fundraising events, we plan to double the number of…”
- “We continue to develop relationships with volunteers and individual donors to cultivate them into making larger gifts.”
- “We plan to invest in a new donor management system…”
- “We plan to launch a corporate sponsorship initiative…”
- “We constantly seek feedback from donors, funders, and other stakeholders by…”
- On the programmatic and operational fronts, you’ll want to mention surveys and other feedback mechanisms whereby you are constantly working to improve your program so that it remains a high quality program the funder wants to fund.
- This loops back to the program adaptability component of TCC’s sustainability formula.
- Demonstrate the experience and capacity of your development team, highlighting tenure, relationships, and track record.
- Emphasize the leadership’s commitment to actively fundraise.
- Highlight your ability to leverage resources to support your program offerings and sustainability through strengthening and expanding partnerships with other community organizations or funders. This shows you’re expanding your organization’s capacity while leveraging funder dollars.
Sound confident in your ability to sustain the program, both financially and programmatically (through staff tenure, partnerships/collaborations, connections to resources, etc.)
What if you don’t have the strongest answers?
If you don’t have the strongest sustainability plan or diversity of funding sources, here’s how you can still create a strong response:
- If you’re in a field (such as mental health) where the majority of organizations don’t have diverse funding sources, emphasize that you are reflective of your field but that you’re a pioneer in starting to diversify your funding sources.
- Emphasize that the sources you do have, have been historically successful, and appropriate to your funding model.
- Maybe it’s a heavily volunteer-run organization, and almost 100% of volunteers also donate — you may not need to do special events if you’re securing enough funds through grants and donations.
- Bring in experts like strategic planners or grant writers to help you develop strategic plans or development plans to increase your fundraising outcomes.
- Explain that you’re “turning the ship” and working to create a “culture of philanthropy” within your organization (where everyone throughout the organization is responsible to help fundraise in some capacity) that will help to diversify and sustain your program/organization.
- Explain your plan to seek funding from other specific places (i.e., other foundations).
Need additional resources? Check these out:
- The TCC group created this sustainability formula that’s worth the read — share it with your board!
- Check out the creatively named Nonprofit With Balls blog — which calls out nonprofit challenges with hilarity — and its piece about the standardized answers to the sustainability question.
- Catch our video about the sustainability question.
Reach out to me at email@example.com if you have any questions.
Good luck with your grant writing — and may the odds be ever in your favor!