Fundraising and Program Sustainability: The Forgotten Link

I once heard a fundraiser say this and it shocked me.

“Program sustainability has nothing to do with me, does it?”

You see, several years ago, when I decided I was personally ready to make a bequest, I thought long and hard about which organization would receive it. I wanted to choose an organization that I knew was going to be around when the time came years later. I ultimately chose Amnesty International, not because I was already a member, but because they had been around for fifty years. And I felt fairly certain they would be around for another fifty more to use my gift.

There is an undeniable link between fundraising and program sustainability; one that is often forgotten.

What is Program Sustainability?

There are several different types of sustainability, but the one that is most relevant to fundraising is the continuation of successful pilot programs after major or seed funding is terminated. All too often, it’s easy to obtain funding for a new and innovative pilot program, but sustaining all or part of it beyond the original funding period can be a challenge.

Researchers who study program sustainability tell us there are many organizational factors that are associated with greater sustainability. These promoters of sustainability range from types of funding and program design, to evaluation, partnerships, personnel, community relations, and communications. Although a uniform and definitive set of predictors has yet to be defined, there is still much that nonprofits can do with what is known now.

Sustainability Makes Your Work Easier

Program sustainability builds longevity, which in turn builds organizational credibility. This credibility ultimately makes your job easier as a fundraiser when you are making the big ask. Donors choose to give to organizations that are well run and have staying power. In fact, the factors associated with increased sustainability read much like best practices for operating a nonprofit: diverse revenue sources, strong partnerships, competent leadership, demonstrated worth, community support.

Your Work Makes Sustainability Easier

If you’re an organization that is considering embarking upon a major gift program, it can be a daunting prospect to sell it to management and staff. But make no mistake, major gifts from individual donors are the single most sustainable source of funds you will bring into your organization. This is because individual donations lack the strings attached that other sources such as foundation or government grants frequently have. Individual donations give your organization greater freedom to spend the money where you know it is most needed and best applied.

Taken together, your work in fundraising and program sustainability ends up being a reinforcing cycle. The greater your sustainability, the more individual donors you will attract, and the more individual donors you attract, the greater your sustainability.

Building Your Sustainability

Programs often ask me, “What’s the best thing we can do to improve our potential for sustainability?”, to which I always answer, “Develop a sustainability plan.” Many organizations are diligent about drafting a strategic plan, but few take the time to develop a sustainability plan. A sustainability plan is a conscious response to the inevitability that one day, one or more of your organization’s programs will lose their funding. An ideal sustainability plan is one that you develop at the beginning of your program, includes multiple strategies, and becomes a part of your overall strategic plan.

So when you’re making the big ask, don’t forget that you’re doing a whole lot more than just bringing in money. You’re actually fostering program sustainability.

About Kylie Hutchinson

Kylie Hutchinson has worked as a fundraiser, program staffer, and is currently a program sustainability and evaluation consultant with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation. She is the author of Survive and Thrive: Three Steps to Securing Your Program’s Sustainability.

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