Standardized answers to the Sustainability Question


beach-690125_960_720Hi everyone, last week the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a piece I wrote on the Sustainability Myth. Warning: The piece is for paid subscribers, but it was adapted from this post—“Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?”—which you should check out, since it talks about teeth tattoos, which is an earned-income strategy I am working on in order to increase my organization’s “sustainability.” Tattoos on one’s canines and incisors will be the next big thing in society, trust me, and my organization is going to ride that wave.

Recently I wrote a grant proposal for $30,000, and of course, at the end, there it was, the Sustainability Question. “How will you sustain your program when support from the XYZ foundation runs out?” I took a deep breath. And by “taking a deep breath,” I meant chugging a mini bottle of vodka I keep in my laptop bag. Then I looked at pictures of cute baby animals. That always helps me to calm down.

The Sustainability Question is annoying. (Please see “The Sustainability Question: Why it is so annoying.”) We nonprofits are constantly thinking of how to bring in revenues. Constantly. To be asked how we will continue to fundraise is like being asked, “How will you continue breathing?” Unless a funder provides 50% or more of a project’s revenues, there is no need to ask the Sustainability Question. I’ve seen grants for as little as $5,000 ask the irritating, obnoxious question. I am trying to raise on average a million dollars each year for the next seven years in order to get more people of color to enter the nonprofit sector. $30,000 is incredibly helpful and much appreciated—we don’t even take a $5 donation for granted—but holy hummus, it is not nearly enough, and when it is gone, and even when it’s there, we will continue to do what all EDs and other development staff have done since the beginning of time: Fundraise, and wake up screaming from cashflow-related night terrors.

Since it is not going away any time soon, and all of us are forced to hold our noses and answer it each time we come across it, let’s develop a standardized response to the Sustainability Question that we can just copy and paste. This will save us time and energy—time and energy that we can spend on stuff like helping people. Here are drafts of the standardized version, along with other versions in case you’re feeling adventurous. Let me know your thoughts:

The Standardized Response:

Understanding the importance of long-term sustainability, [your organization]’s staff and board are constantly developing and implementing plans to diversify our funding. We are confident we will be able to increase our programmatic and organizational sustainability through a combination of several strategies:

  • Strengthening both board and staff’s fundraising capacity through professional development opportunities
  • Building and sustaining relationships with other local foundations
  • Developing stronger ties to local corporations as well as to small businesses
  • Improving and innovating on our special events in order to bring in more revenues
  • Evolving our annual mailing campaign through innovative donor-centric communication
  • Expanding our individual donor cultivation activities, and
  • Exploring earned-income strategies

We believe that through a robust fundraising plan combined with an organizational culture of philanthropy, [your organization] will be able to sustain, expand, and scale its program to effectively serve the community for the long-term. [If space allows, you may want to expand on each bullet point by listing out specific examples].

Short version

The long-term sustainability of our program is a high priority for [your organization]. We will continue to develop our staff and board’s ability to fundraise in order to diversify our revenues. Our funding strategies include building relationship with other foundations, cultivating support from corporate sponsors and individual donors, increasing revenues from special events, refining our annual appeal process, and exploring income generation such as through the online sales of inspiring macaroni artwork made by the youth in our after-school program [tailor this last sentence to add specificity about potential earned-income streams].

Seattle version 

Long-term sustainability is a high-priority for [your organization]. After support from the XYZ Foundation ends, we will continue to diversify our funding through the following ways: Cultivating individual donors who align with our values of environmental justice, hosting carbon-neutral events featuring organic local farms, building relationships with local family-owned businesses that make artisanal products in small batches, and exploring opening a recreational marijuana store as an earned-income strategy.

Canadian version 

Long-term sustainability, eh? We have been working on diversifying our revenues, including developing partnerships with local businesses. For example, we talked to the manager of Timmy’s, and for every ten double-doubles sold, they’re donating a loonie. We’ll improve our Poutine and Beer event to build relationship with major donors. And there is also a long online queue for the toques and bunnyhugs the staff have been making.

“Innovative” version

Our organization is on the forefront of innovation, which we will apply to increase our long-term sustainability and impact. Through collective mind-melding, board and staff will harvest synergy and shift the paradigm for evidence-based crowdsourcing to increase individual contributions. In addition, technical advances hybridized with holistic storytelling and impact investment through venture capitalism will allow our team to leverage income-generation via cryogenic preservation offered to major donors on the edge of existential discoveries.

Folksy version

Well, don’t you worry a wink, we’ve got that whole long-term sustainability business taken care of. We are not about to let our community folk suffer like a possum in a spit bucket on account of running out of grease for the engine. We have plans to keep this programming hog humming, and they include hollering at the local business fellers, hosting events that are as special as a slice of ham and three eggs, and selling our office-brewed moonshine for a few coins here and yonder.

Poetic version

Doth the wave not crash eternal against the shoals? So too shall we continue to lash against the shores of injustice. Long after Time has effaced your footsteps from the sands of outcomes, the tides of fundraising shall continue to rise and fall.

Short and simple version

We will leave you alone, and bother other people.


Feel free to give feedback and suggest other versions. I’ll edit this post as we go along until we have effective versions we can all just copy and paste.


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28 thoughts on “Standardized answers to the Sustainability Question

  1. Laura Carpenter Myers

    You always hit the nail on the head and with humor! I want to sit around a campfire and sing kumbyah with you.

  2. ArtPride New Jersey

    Copying for future grant applications! I think the question is asked in a sort of sadistic fashion just before you receive the letter/email/phone call telling you about the “transition” grant you are about to receive, aka “the last grant before your field is no longer considered a priority,”

  3. Trisha Matthieu

    I have to find some way to incorporate my new favorite phrase, “like a possum in a spit bucket” into conversations this week (and beyond)! Thank you for that! I nearly spit out my coffee, laughing.

  4. Laura Hines

    “I will continue to do what all EDs and other development staff have done since the beginning of time: Fundraise, and wake up screaming from cashflow-related night terrors.”
    I think I feel better that this doesn’t just happen to me. Love this post; thanks for the humor surrounding a serious issue on a bleak Monday morn.

  5. Camille Holthaus

    My modest contribution, which I dearly wish we could actually execute while also transitioning from an all volunteer to a staffed organization:

    Through evidence-based, community-sourced information, our board of directors has developed a robust model of the risks inherent in grant funding. Therefore, over the next three years, our funding model will be transitioning away from grant funding to individual donor and community resource supported programming. In light of this, we feel we are an excellent candidate for receipt of this grant as you can be assured we will not be dependent on your granting in the future.

  6. Marnee Chua

    The “I’m going corporate” version:
    You can bet your sweet patootie that after receiving this grant, I – and most of my staff – will be applying for jobs in the corporate world in order to get jobs that pay for our work, without needing to justify our place in life or beg for appropriate insurance programs. Because of the help of the “xyz” foundation, we will have received the kind of training that should get us into entry level positions at almost any major corporation, where we will already be getting paid more than we have in the last 10 years. As corporate big wigs, with living wage salaries and benefits, we will feel good about donating our money back to [nonprofit name here]. Within a few short years, our nonprofit ethic of working too many hours will pay off, giving us raises and more cash to donate back. We will hire some other poor slobs to do our nonprofit work and pay them for it from the excess cash we will now have on hand.

    1. Patricia Garza

      This literally made me laugh so hard. Thank you! Corporate version=brilliant.

  7. KevandT

    Vu, I’m surprised there is only ONE bottle of vodka in your laptop bag. I usually require two and it better be Wild Turkey (higher alcohol content).

  8. Carolyn C

    Can I make a request that you write your mid or final report for us in the folksy or poetic style? That’d make my day. Love the post.

  9. Ana Cervantes

    I ***LOVE*** THIS POST!!! Oh, this SO resonates with so much stuff in the Arts! And by the way, I too would agree with the more-than-one bottle of alcohol in the knapsack, except for here it would be tequila or mezcal.

  10. Mat Despard

    How about this one: “We will launch an advocacy campaign to increase the minimum annual principle payout foundations like yours are required to make by the IRS from 5% to 10%”

  11. House0fTheBlueLights

    I think every grant writer in America needs to just cut-and-paste the “straight” versions, literally word-for-word, until granting America figures out what’s going on. Every Single Proposal from here on must use that language (I’ve already inserted it, with a copyright for Vu in the footnote, not kidding).

  12. Melran

    Brilliant post! The “Short and simple version” is my personal favorite. Thank you!

  13. Carolyn Owens

    I just used your standard answer in a proposal, thanks Vu! (I really wanted to use the folksy one, sigh) Plus I have the hedgehog picture on my computer wallpaper now. Double bonus! Thanks for making me laugh out loud, once again.

  14. TNH

    Small NFP with sole worker version:
    A candle always flickers in the doorway to show that the organisation is not always open but a heart and soul shimmers within and about everyday of the week. The candle represents the eternal light of sustainability. On this light we heat up our mugs of soup and endless cups of tea, on this light we burn the unsucessful funding submissions, on this light our volunteers warm their hands and smile as the glow brightens every time we chant our mantra ‘sustainability’.
    Beyond this current funding round our sustainability will, as always be a blend of North of Mahoney’s road candour and hope.

  15. Lea M Johnson

    this is wonderful. thanks, it’s been a long-week of grant writing and I needed this!

  16. Janet Hamada

    Hi Vu. I’ve been reading your blog for a few years and never commented, although I forward it to around 20 people each Monday. Thought you’d like to hear that I used your Short Version in a grant proposal, and it was just funded for $25,000! I’m a firm believer in not recreating the wheel, so cutting and pasting from your blog was just perfect. Thank You–for this, and for always making me laugh!

  17. Karen Whiteman

    Thanks so much for including Canada in there! We are so often left out of these conversations!

  18. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    There definitely needs to be a “SPEW ALERT” icon posted at the beginning of these posts. In the future, I will definitely be referring patrons to this post when they ask about sustainability. LOL

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