Reflections on Nonprofit Sustainability, with Vu Le

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with organizational leaders about the sustainability of their organizations. Some of these conversations have been tactical, e.g., will I need to furlough my staff? How do I create accurate revenue projections? Other conversations have been more existential in nature… How do we adapt our programs to remain relevant in the coming months? What will our staff and capacity actually look like 3-, 6-, 9-months from now?

About a month ago, I had the privilege of speaking with the amazing Vu Le, author of Nonprofit AF and former Executive Director of RVC, about this very topic: Sustainability. More precisely, we had a conversation for my online summit, the Fundraising Strategies Summit, about what he calls the “nonprofit sustainability myth.” Vu is such a delightful person to talk to, and our conversation was filled with both laughter and his incredible insights into the notion of sustainability.

So much of what we talked about is relevant to our current circumstances, so I’m sharing the audio of our conversation, as well as a brief overview of some key points from our discussion.

You can listen to the conversation here:

You can also download the transcript of the conversation here:

Overview Of Nonprofit Sustainability Conversation with Vu Le

“The sustainability myth is the belief that if nonprofits work hard enough, money will fly down from the heavens and we’ll never have to apply for a grant ever again.”

Vu writes often about the sustainability myth. He explains that he believes that it’s rooted in an unhealthy relationship between organizations and funders predicated the notion that nonprofits should be responsible for their own revenue, and that their operations and programs should be self-sustaining. Adhering to this notion leads to burn out and shame: Funders continue to ask “how will you sustain yourselves after our funding is gone,” and organizations beat themselves up for continuing to need external funding.

“At the root of this myth: A true partnership between funders, government and nonprofits is missing.”

In reality, nonprofits should be delivering critical services and foundations/donors should be facilitating the provision of those services by providing funding. That’s true symbiosis.

“We need to get out of our often adversarial relationship with program officers and actually start seeing them as our allies… And funders need to really listen to their grantees.”

As an experienced nonprofit Executive Director, Vu has seen that many funders are open to having a conversation about what it really takes to help an organization thrive. Nonprofits need to be open and frank with their program officers and provide them with evidence about the challenges they’re facing, the impact they’re having, and the true cost of their work — including “non-sexy” things like operations and infrastructure. Program officers often have to face internal dynamics and power dynamics within their own organizations. Many of the things that they want to change are being pushed against by board trustees of their foundations, for example. By working together, we can begin to open space for an honest conversation about nonprofit sustainability.

“We must think about true sustainability as investing in our operations, our infrastructure, and our people.”

One of the core elements of Vu’s argument against the sustainability myth is the fact that it undermines the ability of organizations — especially small organizations and those run by marginalized communities — to truly invest in operations. Operations, people, infrastructure… these things must be strong in order for an organization to do quality, high-impact work.

He makes the argument that nonprofits need to be bold and ambitious in what they ask for. “Whatever you’re asking for, think about adding a zero to that ask. If you’re thinking about asking for $5000, think about asking for $50k. I know that sounds like a very privileged thing. But for many of these larger mainstream organizations, that’s what they do.”

Ultimately, a partnership between nonprofits and funders that supports true sustainability is one that will allow nonprofits to actually spend money on those things that lead to true sustainability — their people, their operations, and their infrastructure — without being apologetic about it.

As a reminder, you can download the transcript of this conversation here.