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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