The Holy Grail of Nonprofit Sustainability

Sustainability. It’s the Holy Grail for most nonprofit organizations. Too often we focus on just one aspect of sustainability – funding – and fail to see the big picture of forces that truly drive growth.

About 10 years ago, funders began requiring sustainability plans in their grant applications, recognizing that few nonprofit grantees looked beyond the next grant or fundraising campaign to figure out how they would sustain their work. Many of these same organizations had little cushion to survive an economic downturn let alone plan for growth.

Around this time Due East began studying what allowed certain nonprofit organizations to survive, or even thrive, as public funding evaporated and securing private support began to feel like the Hunger Games. We found 5 Drivers of Growth and Sustainability that protected organizations during predictable economic cycles as well as organizational crises, such as the loss of key leader or funder. These 5 Drivers include: 

Vision: The clear, compelling picture of the change your organization will create.

Leadership: The credible, capable volunteers and staff who are driving your vision forward.

Visibility: Strong brand with positive buzz for your organization and its impact.

Constituency: The people who care about your mission and vision or who ought to care.

Organization: The capacity, infrastructure, staffing and governance to deliver your mission.

In addition to these five, organizational culture can accelerate or stymie growth. In the graphic at left, culture is shown as an aura that surrounds the drivers recognizing its atmospheric effect, cooling or heating up the 5 drivers.

Since developing this framework nearly a decade ago, we have used the 5 Drivers with scores of nonprofit organizations large and small, in the public and private sectors. It is incredibly versatile.

The framework works best when treated as a recipe and not a formula. After doing an assessment, you might focus on 2 or 3 drivers that are most critical to your strategic goals. They key is to maintain a strength-based approach. So if historically your organization’s constituency has been key to your success do not ignore that asset in focusing more on organization, where you may be relatively weak. The key is to keep doing what’s working as you tap into new drivers to see how they can accelerate your growth and ensure your sustainability. Typically this means stopping doing some things, starting others and doing things differently to fire up a new driver.

Like all organic systems, maintaining a healthy balance among the 5 Drivers is ultimately what makes this model work. For instance, if you eat a healthy diet for months and never exercise, you might maintain your weight but ultimately fail to achieve the overall health and well-begin you desired. Similarly, organizations require a steady diet of all 5 drivers to remain healthy, thrive and ultimately sustain their missions.

If you feel like you have been running fast and hard on the treadmill of fundraising without gaining ground toward sustainability, it may be time to try a different approach. The best part about the 5 Drivers is that they build upon each other and create their own momentum, propelling your organization beyond the reach of your initial effort and investment. It’s a bit like firing up your metabolism during a full body workout. You continue to get the benefits even while at rest.

Sustainability does not need to be the quest for the Holy Grail if you’ve got the map. Start to put time and attention into the 5 Drivers of Growth & Sustainability and share back your results. We are continually amazed by and learn from the innovative ways organizations have used our model. Please be in touch.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *