What Does Sustainability Mean?
Posted by Allison Fine on September 11, 2009
Michael is writing about the great myth of sustainability for international aid efforts. He writes, “What does sustainability mean when the government lacks the capacity – or the will – to assume responsibility for service delivery?”
I think it’s interesting that Michael’s assumption that sustainability could come from government funding. It’s one difference, I suppose, between an international and domestic context. We moved away from the notion of government sustaining efforts started by nonprofits here about twenty years ago when government funding for social service efforts dried up. Out of that development came the trend of nonprofits creating for profit subsidies to make themselves to provide a revenue stream outside of individual and foundation grants.
The for profit subsidiaries were launched with mixed financial results, most failed in the first several years, and Burton Weisbrod writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review skeptically observed, “the drive for profit exposes nonprofits to the charge of losing site of their social goals.”
So, how’s a nonprofit supposed to sustain its efforts here or overseas?
We’re not. It’s the wrong word to use. Sustaining something means that it runs on its own, without the help of anyone else on the outside. Nonprofits not only can’t accomplish that, we shouldn’t try to. That’s why it’s social change work and not for profit work. We don’t have revenue streams that can scale like iPods, and we can’t expect government funding beyond the stimulus package. What we have is you, people, individuals who give small amounts by writing a check or clicking on Causes, or larger donations either personally or through foundations. That’s why nonprofits have tax exempt status – we provide a public good — and the public has to support the work.
Social change efforts need broad-based support for a wide, network of individuals and foundations to sustain their efforts. That’s what sustainability is, not looking to some other sector to foot the bill, but relying on the generosity of growing number of caring people to generously give and work on their behalf.
Foundations often ask what the sustainability plan for a potential grantee. The real question that lies beneath that is “when and how is our foundation going to be off the hook to fund you?” Fair enough, foundations give very generously to causes and it is human nature to want to spread their largess around. But the real isn’t isn’t about becoming sustainable, it’s about building your social network to involve more people and grantmakers in your efforts over time.
This entry was posted on September 11, 2009 at 9:17 am and is filed under Social Media. Tagged: Change.org, Give & Take, Michael Bear, Stanford Social Innovation Fund. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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