There’s No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability… and What To Do About It (Part 2) - Exponent Philanthropy
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There’s No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability… and What To Do About It (Part 2)

This post is the second in a 2-part series on the role of funders in the lively topic of sustainability in the nonprofit sector. Read part 1 >> The series is based on session presentations made by the author at two regional conferences sponsored by the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University. The author also gives a tip-of-the-hat to Vu Le, the brains behind the blog Nonprofit With Balls. 

Funders approach problem-solving with the passion to make change, to improve people’s lives, and to leave the world a better place. Yet so often how we go about the business of philanthropy complicates and restrains our work and that of our nonprofit partners—and, in fact, makes sustainability more of a mirage on the horizon, not a practical destination.

Where are funders going wrong?

Philanthropic policy and practice

We might start by considering how our policies and practices defeat nonprofit organizations before they even get started trying to meet our call for sustainability:

  • When we limit our grantmaking to 1-year awards and won’t consider multiyear grants that free up time from fundraising and increase time for problem-solving
  • When we impose a lengthy and burdensome proposal review process that eats up our partners’ time
  • When our grant application guidelines put limitations on frequency, timing, and kinds of support we will consider (No general operating grants! No capital support! No advocacy! And we only make one grant per year for any organization!)
  • When we won’t support start-up organizations
  • When we won’t recognize unsolicited proposals

Shifting interests and directions

I’ll be the among the first to stand in defense of funders articulating focused interest areas and pursuing directed strategies to catalyze change in those areas. But I’ll also be among the first to note the complications that arise when grantmakers shift their tectonic plates—and how this further makes sustainability a suspect goal.

Sometimes these pivots come from internal deliberations driven by interest in making the best possible use of resources. Other times they come from changes in external factors that call for repositioning strategies. And sometimes they arise from leadership changes at the top.

A recent search through the philanthropic press uncovered no shortage of stories about foundations making significant shifts in their focus areas. These ranged from funders terminating long-running program priorities to foundations narrowing the number and kind of grantmaking interest areas and strategies. Another web search identified more than a few examples of new foundation leaders triggering extensive overhauls of grantmaking priorities, including the elimination of entire program areas.

In any of these situations, how can we send our grantees off in pursuit of sustainability when the ground (and ground rules we make) are continually shifting under their feet?

Donor fatigue

Donor fatigue is a particular and peculiar form of shifting interest. The classic foundation grantmaking model is alive and well: We’ll support you for 1 to 3 years, then we look for your organization to have other sources of revenue.

But there’s also the more discreet—and far more challenging—behavior captured in an actual quote I’ve heard more than once from grantmakers: “Well, we’ve been funding the same thing for a while, and they do good work, but…”

If our commitment in staying the course to make real change is this tepid, we cannot reasonably ask our partners about how they hope to achieve a sustainable future.

The “question”

I’ve asked “the question” of a grantseeker, and I know you have as well: How will you continue/sustain the project/program/organization after our funding? In a best-case scenario, this conversation is a bit of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. We believe we have to ask it on behalf of our board, or that it’s our fiduciary responsibility. In a worst-case scenario, a funder asks expecting a fully articulated development plan. Let’s admit, though, that the reality behind the question and the ensuing response is more than a bit of both parties doing a dance.

When the grantseeker responds with their plan to do x, y, and z actions to ensure sustainability, we are actually seeking to learn how we can pass them off to other funders!

So what do we do about this?

If sustainability is indeed an illusion, as I believe, how about initiating an honest conversation about sustainability between funders and our nonprofit partners?

As funders, we can transcend the sustainability myth by focusing on the long-term context and arc of real problem-solving. Substantive change takes a long time to achieve. Let’s explore the many options and tools we have to build the endurance of our grantee partners to actually solve problems. Let’s agree to rise above the self-imposed limitations of application guidelines and procedures. We have the ability to meet our fiduciary responsibility and develop enduring organizations and approaches.

We should also support and encourage our nonprofit partners to dream big, to shoot for the stars, and to expand the possibilities of what they can achieve by focusing on getting the work done.

I’m encouraged that we are seeing the emergence of such an honest conversation. Last summer, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, wrote, “Our aim is to ask not, ‘How do we make this grant successful?’ but rather, ‘How do we make this organization successful?’”

It wasn’t that long ago when we began asking why philanthropy couldn’t be engaged in advocacy and public policy, or when we started questioning the overhead myth. The outcome of those discussions strengthened the work of funders and nonprofits alike.

It’s now time to kindle an equally important dialogue among grantmakers and with nonprofits that challenges the illusion of sustainability—and how leaving that myth behind advances all our work.

Jeff Glebocki, founder and CEO of Strategy + Action/Philanthropy, helps foundations, nonprofits, and institutions around the country become catalysts for change in the communities and causes they serve. Jeff is also foundation coordinator for The Doll Family Foundation of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and past president of The Raymond John Wean Foundation.


  1. […] about. There’s No Such Thing as Nonprofit Sustainability…and What To Do About It (Part 1) and (Part 2) What is the role of funders in the lively topic of sustainability in the nonprofit sector? Impact […]

  2. Thanks for writing this article, Jeff. I had some thoughts about the question you suggested funders pose – “how can we make this organization successful?” First, I couldn’t agree with you more. And second, the most significant thing funders can do is provide in-depth, third-party organization evaluations, conducted by experts to their nonprofit partners. I’ve been in the sector for over 20 years and am astounded by the sheer lack of data driven decision-making on the funding side. Funders have the money to conduct real evaluations and too few actually do it. One of the best ways to strengthen NPOs and improve performance is to provide research that helps them understand their strengths and weaknesses and lays out a path for improvement.

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