The Three Pillars of (Fundraising) Sustainability

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sometimes, fundraising feels like trying to carry water in a leaky bucket. Donor retention remains at about 60 percent and there are high rates of employee turnover at many nonprofit organizations. The push to fundraise from a donor-centric perspective has proven beneficial but in order to raise more money in support of the mission, keep our donors and employees and create meaningful change we need to take our approach a step further. Nonprofits must be sustainable.

A good fundraiser recognizes opportunities in unconventional places: giving, connecting, and learning. To better under understand nonprofit sustainability, we turn to science--specifically, the Three Pillars of Sustainability. These three principles are considered the standard criteria that any system must meet in order to be sustainable and can be interpreted into useful “best practices” for any nonprofit organization.

      1. Economic

Simply put, sustainable things are able to last for a long time. For the Earth, sustainability means using its natural resources without completely depleting them. Sustainable nonprofits operate within their financial means and use their inherent resources responsibly. Your resources include both tangible (donors, technology) and intangible (staff skillsets, community partners) things.

Adherence to regulations and transparent financial reporting are key components of economic sustainability for nonprofits. Invest in a solid infrastructure and professional development opportunities to strengthen staff skills and add value to existing programs. Donors are attracted to causes that are championed by organizations that can demonstrate their impact clearly. Use your resources to support the things that matter: the mission and the people who carry it out every day.

      2. Social

Organizations cannot survive, let alone sustain, without the support of community stakeholders. Your stakeholders include the board, staff, volunteers, donors, community partners, and the people who receive services from your organization. By forming partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, civic organizations and local government officials, you further extend your social reach and secure a place for your organization within the social fabric of your community.

Schedule time for stewardship every week to boost donor retention. Make community engagement activities as inclusive as possible to promote advocacy from stakeholders in their personal networks. Fundraisers who focus on donor retention strategies such as these are successful because they approach the relationship between a nonprofit organization and a community stakeholder as a long-term, evolving relationship rather than a transactional one.

      3. Environmental

Nonprofits thrive when resources are allocated wisely and a social network of support is in place. However, environmental protections must be in place to secure organizational longevity. Encourage your board and fellow staff members to become conservationists who value strategic investments that foster the health of your nonprofit ecosystem. A certain amount of overhead, or administrative costs, are necessary for longevity; otherwise you risk falling into the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.

Do not confuse the outward appearance of success with long-term sustainability, however. It doesn’t matter how many programs you run or how nice your event is if you can’t keep the lights on. Fundraisers can help avoid this outcome. Collaborate on a strategic plan with other staff or members of the board. Encourage donors to think of necessary spending in terms of renewable energy. All overhead costs, whether a new technology investment or a training opportunity, enhance an existing resource and provide organizational stability.

Is your organization sustainable?

Sustainable nonprofits:

  • Set and adhere to a budget
  • Allocate resources strategically
  • Set aside operational reserves for emergencies
  • Comply with financial regulations and transparency
  • Create a diverse support base of private donors, corporate support and volunteers
  • Focus on donor retention strategies
  • Make time for stewardship in your overall fundraising strategy
  • Use the talents of staff members effectively
  • Employ conservation strategies to promote a healthy organizational ecosystem
  • Communicate effectively with high level donors about the importance of supporting administrative costs as well as mission work

Use the Three Pillars of Fundraising Sustainability to evaluate your organization. Following your evaluation, create a roadmap for the areas that need improvement and ensure your nonprofit will make an impact for many years to come.


Katie Norris, Client Account Manager