Nonprofit Strategies: Sustainability about more than money

April 26, 2012 

Every board and staff of nonprofits is concerned about sustainability. Too often, however, the focus is only on sustaining financial resources.

Peter York, Senior Vice President and Director of Research for the TCC Group, a nonprofit consulting firm, argues that nonprofits aren’t truly sustainable if they focus only on finances.

In the paper, “The Sustainability Formula,” available at   pdfs/Sustainability   Formula.pdf, York states that an organization must focus on leadership, adaptability and program capacity in order to achieve sustainability.

York’s research finds that leadership is the first thing to focus on when trying to achieve sustainability. Board and staff leaders must have an easily communicated vision about how the organization will live out its mission. The vision must inspire others to join in the work. And everyone in the organization must share in the rewards of success efforts and negative consequences of less successful ones.

Programs must be measured by how much is accomplished and how much it costs. More importantly, though, is measuring the achievement of desired outcomes by the clients. This combination of metrics allows for a true costeffectiveness analysis. Decisions will be better informed and more strategic.

Not surprisingly, York suggests that organizations that have an easily communicated and inspirational vision plus a deep understanding of the cost and effectiveness of programs raise more money. The vision builds reputation and understanding cost-effectiveness builds credibility; both build donor loyalty.

How can a nonprofit begin to build leadership, adaptability and program effectiveness? One way is to have board and staff leaders participate in executive-level workshops and coaching.

Having a safe place to talk about difficult things gives the leaders important perspective.

Also, training staff on program design and evaluation aids in continuous quality measurement. If done well, staff becomes empowered to continually strengthen services and service delivery.

Barry VanderKelen is executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation. Reach him at

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