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Sustaining the future

25_WT_EU_CAMPAIGN_BEST_OF_web_900px.jpg“Foundations are really nothing without nonprofits," said John Fetzer from the Northwest Area Foundation at Pollen’s Sustain-A-What event. It was a good line to open with when speaking to a room full of nonprofit practitioners because who doesn’t want to feel like they matter? It definitely got tweeted out on the #sustainawhat hashtag, and set the tone for the rest of the talk – we were not gathered to be yelled at about earned income strategies or that we needed to act “more like a business.”

Because let’s face it, when people talk about nonprofit sustainability, that’s often what they are referring to – how are you going to make money that’s not a grant or donation? What is your clever strategy for monetizing your content or the populations you serve? How are you going to work in ways that make business people and lawyers feel comfortable about it? 

In the nonprofit world, we are only ever a step or two away from profits – we depend on individual donations (the result of people working for their money), foundation endowments (the invested results of that same money-making), some earned income strategies. But nonprofits aren’t just businesses that don’t make money; we work in economies of relationships, talents, communities and change. We exist to make the world a better place, often filling in businesses gaps and correcting the market’s externalities. There’s not a lack of affordable housing because the market has failed; there is a lack of affordable housing because the market pushes prices up and incentivizes developers to compete for higher rents and sales prices. The housing crisis is the market functioning perfectly well, from a business standpoint.

Running a business is hard, as many nonprofits who try and start a business learn to their own detriment. The Small Business Administration reports that about 50% of businesses fail in their first year. Running a nonprofit is hard, too, but not all of those skills, or the mindsets of stakeholders and relationship building, are transferable. As Marcia Ballinger of Ballinger|Leafblad and Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund (the Sustain-A-What moderator-turned-panelist) wrote in a blog post addressing business people looking to transition to the nonprofit sector, “Consensus and buy-in from groups is required more often. You’ve got to earn commitments in different ways, where often ‘incentives’ are intangible.”

So we need to reject the premise of the question when it comes to sustainability-as-earned-income-strategy, and we must underscore the bigger meaning of sustainability if we’re really going really make the impact we want. And that means embracing what Fetzer put forward – that we do this work together, in mutually supported, interdependent ways. Here are some challenges to put to ourselves to make our work more sustainable:

Let’s invest in our people more

We’re seeing more and more foundations realize that funding the people who do the work is crucial. Individual donors similarly want to know who it is that they are giving to – personal connections have always been the bedrock of individual fundraising. The Ford Foundation recently announced that they were doubling overhead on project grants to 20%, a move in recognition of the myth that low overhead means more effective programming. Let’s push our partners, donors, and clients by investing more in ourselves as well. We can’t fight income inequality if our organizations are perpetuating income inequality. Let’s do more to fight the “Circle of Strife” in nonprofit hiring, because we can’t keep talent if we don’t have recruitment and succession plans, don’t promote from within, or reduce loss of time and talent through turnover.

Let’s tell our stories better

Just as it takes more than money to sustain impactful work, the results of our work are nor just in money. As a sector, we are good are reporting things like dollars in and dollars out, number of people we’ve served, and other simple countable, quantifiable measures that look good on an infographic. We’re generally good at highlighting individual stories of clients, donors and partners. But we’re not always good at tracking and sharing the secondary effects of our work, the ripples and systems changes that happen because of our accumulated interventions or pushing new, creative measures of success. At Springboard for the Arts, where I work, we commissioned a market research firm to study the media impact of Irrigate, our artist-led creative placemaking work along the Green Line construction on University Avenue. The resulting top line number – that there were 51 million positive media impressions of the affected neighborhoods  creates a compelling case for lots of small-scale investment in local creative power. What if we could do more of this, or use studies like the World Happiness Report as a model and measure of impact?

Let’s share as much as can

I moderated a panel for the Charities Review Council last year where Daniel Wordsworth of the American Refugee Council noted that in their international work, they rarely work with other nonprofits, because nonprofits were too worried about getting credit and their name on things. We’re worried because if we don’t think we’re getting recognized, then our funders won’t feel like they’re recognized, we won’t be seen as effective, and we won’t be funded. But doing this work in a deep and collaborative way to bring maximum impact means setting aside egos and fears, and making things happen together. We can share program ideas and toolkits. Organizations like the Nonprofit Centers Network are building resources around sharing administrative roles and space. We can be transparent with each other about the money and relationships we’re bringing to the table, and what we can do together. In our interdependent world, we can be more relevant if we can be more open to partners from inside and outside of our sector.

Let’s put ourselves out of business

My favorite moment of Sustain-A-What was Kate Barr answering the foundation’s question of how a program would carry on if they stopped funding it. “Well,” she put it bluntly, “we can’t, and then this great work in your community goes away.” That’s so true, and we should be that transparent, but that’s not the way we want to go out of business. We should want to go out like Project 515, which shut itself down after the battle for marriage equality was won. And how do we do that? By running projects with focused policy goals or time-limited existences where we can take the learning and relationships on to the next thing. We can do this by collaborating around political, social, and legislative advocacy that will change the underlying conditions of how we work. Because we’re never going to be much use patching the roof if the house is on fire.

Sustain-A-What? happened last Thursday, the same day that Britain voted to leave the European Union. Brexit brings up a fundamental question that I believe is critical in contemplating nonprofit sustainability: What is the good of independence in an interdependent world? As we wrestle with this, let’s be transparent and sharing so we can change the conditions in which we work. Let’s embrace cultures of abundance and make the most of the funding opportunities that exist, and let’s work with partners, communities and funders to create new modes of support. Let’s do all this work with an eye on the goal of not having to do it anymore, sustained to a sunset.


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