What to Say When Asked the Sustainability Question


When grant funders ask, “How will you sustain this program in the future?” what do you say? Many dread this question because they just aren’t sure how to answer. Some people think grants are the path to sustainability but that won’t work in the long-term. The reason funders are asking is because they want to hear the long-term strategic plan for programming and fundraising development.

Rebuilding the Donor Base

Think of it this way: If the program costs $200,000 to run and the grant you’re applying for is $50,000, the funder will want to know where the $150,000 balance is coming from. The answer could easily be individual donors, corporate donors, and earned income revenue. After all, your grant revenue should never exceed 20% of your organization’s operating budget. And as much as you love your donors, there is no guarantee that every donor will be there year after year so don’t operate under that assumption. You’ve got to have a plan to foster these relationships.

Sounds simple but reaching out to steward your donors goes a long way to making them interested in donating to your organization over another one. Handwritten thank you notes, phone calls, personalized video messages, in-person meetings, donor recognition, and events to simply express gratitude are among the ways to foster this relationship.

Diversifying Revenue Streams

Donors and grants are great but they often don’t fully fund the project so you may also want to consider earned income revenue models. What does your organization have, or do, that you can charge for? This could be product or service. Take a food bank as an example. A large food bank in a metropolitan area receives more donations than one in a rural area. The urban food bank decides to sell it pennies on the dollar to rural food banks rather than letting food go bad. Not only is this aligned with the mission to feed the hungry, they are also creating an income stream to fill the funding gap, creating a self-sustaining model.

Utilizing the Team

Ultimately, it’s the people that matter when it comes to answering the sustainability question. This begins by identifying the mission of the nonprofit and aligning staff, volunteers, and the board of directors to this mission. In the food bank example, the organization may ask a local grocery store executive to be on its board to share expertise of food supply chains. The organization could also encourage former clients to tell their story to the grant funder to illustrate the legitimacy of the organization and the reality of the need they are fulfilling in the community. In other words, utilize people to tell the story of the organization.

The next time you’re asked the sustainability question, be ready with the strategic plan of how the money will be used, identify other income sources, and utilize relationships to tell the story of how your nonprofit helps the community.

Action steps you can take today