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Topic: Sustainability

Starting the Sustainability Conversations

April 14, 2010
Kevin D. Monroe, X Factor Consulting, LLC
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Last month we encouraged you to engage more frequently in conversations about sustainability and many of you have. We launched the Nonprofit Sustainability Strategies group on LinkedIn and already have 200 members exploring a variety of topics related to sustainability. If you’ve not yet joined this group and these conversations please consider joining today (click here to join).

Just last week I had at least six separate conversations with leaders of not-for-profit organizations regarding some aspect of sustainability and am writing this article as I travel to California for meetings with several providers to explore program (and organizational) sustainability.

While there are similar themes that run through all of these conversations, every conversation is different and each conversation is, to some degree, unique. That’s because every organization is different -- even organizations that provide the same services in the same city or state differ greatly from one another. Just last week I had very different conversations with two very similar organizations in adjacent counties. Organizations vary because they:

  • are at different stages in their organizational (and program) lifecycle
  • have a unique way of doing things, as well as unique traits and characteristics (all of this comprises what is commonly referred to as culture)
  • have a dynamic blend of skills and talents (assets)
  • have a unique mix of people involved in the organizational leadership (board and staff)

There is no cookie cutter approach to sustainability. There is not a template you can download on the Internet and do a “find and replace” to insert the name of your organization and “wallah” you now have a plan to include with your next proposal to address your organization’s sustainability. (Well, actually there might be one, but I would not recommend purchasing it.)

When should you begin discussing and planning sustainability?

Simply stated -- sustainability planning should begin as soon as possible. If you have not yet begun discussing or planning sustainability - I suggest you begin today.

Right now there are many organizations that would like to be talking about sustainability, instead are scrambling for their survival. I’ve been involved in more of those conversations that I’d like. These are not fun conversations, but they are signs of the times in which we live. While the specifics may vary, the basic story line is an over dependence on a particular funding source that is suddenly reduced or terminated. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 48 of the 50 states are in fiscal distress and funds are rapidly disappearing while more people are needing services. This fact alone has caused many organizations to begin scrambling.


I saved an article from an Ohio newspaper in 2007 and use it as a case study when conducting training on sustainability. Sadly stories similar to this are cropping up across the nation. A local agency “learned recently that the federal government won't renew a $500,000-a-year grant it uses to provide daily classes, treatment and group sessions to people with drug and alcohol addiction.” The article went on to detail the numbers of people who depended on this organization for vital programs and services. One thing that astounded me about the situation was “the entire treatment program has been funded for the past five years with the annual grant.”

I can’t say whether or not they had any conversations about sustainability or what those conversations may have entailed over those five years. However, I can deduce that the organization had not taken any action as the story continued to detail their crisis and stated that their funding would be exhausted by month end.

I am sure we all agree this is a tragic situation! But what actions could have been taken to prevent this crisis?

They could have begun discussing sustainability much earlier in the process. At the risk of alienating some readers, I will suggest that perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions that have led some organizations to where they are. Frequently organizations find one source of funding, often a grant, to fund their programs and then get so busy providing the services there’s no time to think about sustaining them until that funding ceases.

Here are some questions you might want to use to begin the conversation in your organization:

How should we fund our programs (not simply how can we)? What avenues of funding are most appropriate and most accessible for our organization? What blend or mix of funding provides maximum flexibility and sustainability for your organization?

How can we identify and access multiple funding sources to ensure this program continues? Granted, it takes more work to develop blended or braided funding, but many organizations identify three or four sources of funding for every program so that if one stream dries up, there can continue to operate at a reduced level.

How can we increase discretionary (unrestricted) funds for our programs? Many organizations feel trapped by the limitations of grant funding and need regular influx of discretionary funds to provide services excluded by the grant or to serve clients who don’t fit the target profile.


As you consider your current programs you may want to explore these questions:

What level of programming (or service) is sustainable? If the grant were terminated, what level of services could we continue? What options exist? What is our responsibility to our current clients?

I encourage every organization to have serious discussions related to your outcomes and community impact. Here are a few questions to launch those discussions:

What are the most significant outcomes produced by this program that positively impact your community?

How’s our community different because of the work of our organization?

Who else in our community values these outcomes or is interested in this project or client group? This may help you identify key stakeholders that should (or could) be involved in the communication and planning.

How do we communicate our outcomes in such a way as to build local support for our work? Does our community understand (and appreciate) the value of the services we provide?

Are there organizations we could collaborate with to improve the quality or availability of services while decreasing costs?

There are not necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions. Of course, some answers may be better than others. The critical point is that you begin the discussion and have regular dialogue about these topics.

We’d love to hear what you are thinking about sustainability (click here to share).


Kevin Monroe is the Founder and Managing Partner of X Factor Consulting, a consulting firm that makes the world a better place by equipping leaders and strengthening organizations. Through active partnerships with businesses, foundations, government agencies, nonprofits, and others that share this commitment, X Factor is strengthening individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities around the world. 

Kevin has a wealth of experience and a passion for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, as evident in the results he has achieved working with organizations around the country. He is available to consult or speak on this topic and many more. Contact us today or click here to learn more.

© 2010. Text may not be printed or reproduced without written permission from X Factor Consulting. Contact us at [email protected] to obtain approval.


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