Creating Your Sustainability Plan



Welcome to the e-learning lesson on Creating Your Sustainability Plan. Sustainability planning includes the actions an organization takes to maximize its chances to survive, and perhaps even to thrive, despite the uncertainty of what the future may bring. Sustainability planning is a concrete process that an organization takes on over the course of several months; it is also an ongoing process that should become part of an organization’s very fabric. This training will provide you with the resources you need to assist you in launching a plan to achieve organizational stability.

This training includes several steps that an organization can implement when engaging in a sustainability planning process.

The first, Getting Started, includes questions that organizational leadership should answer in order to position the organization for sustainability.

The second, Build your Case for Support, will walk your organization through a process to determine who is most likely to support you and how you can tailor your message to that audience.

The third and fourth, Develop Strategies for Establishing Partnerships and Develop Strategies for Maintaining Partnerships, will assist you in achieving one common goal for forming a sustainable project: creating partnerships that both support your organization’s mission and make you more attractive to potential donors.

The fifth, Develop Strategies for Resource Development, provides a thorough list of resource development options for you to consider.

CHAPTER 1: Getting Started

Before writing an actual sustainability plan, it’s essential for your organization to find its bearings. You need to ask yourself tough, critical questions to ascertain your organization’s purpose and where it stands in relation to the needs of the community you serve.

The Sustainability Planning Questions worksheet will guide you in the planning process.

There are a number of questions that should be answered when creating a sustainability plan. Your answers to these questions should serve to guide you throughout the planning process. To get started with your sustainability plan, download the Sustainability Planning Questions.

A consistent message and direction is essential.

What is the main purpose of our organization? What is our mission? What is our vision?

Unless your organization can clearly articulate its purpose, you may struggle to stay on point. Consistency in messaging and direction is essential. As Lincoln famously pointed out, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Don’t put yourself at risk of internal divisions that could pull the organization apart.

Remain aware of community needs to maximize impact.

What are the community’s needs? How well does our mission align with those needs?

To maximize your organization’s impact on the community and ensure your future sustainability, it’s essential to remain aware of the often dynamic nature of a community’s needs. If your organization’s mission falls too far out of alignment with those needs, you will lose the support you need to exist. If you do not have a clear idea of your community’s needs, consider facilitating a community asset mapping project in order to answer this question.

Define your purpose to maximize effectiveness.

What are we trying to accomplish by maintaining our programs or services?

An examination of the purpose for the programs or services you provide is important for several reasons. For one, it can help determine if your organization is making the most effective use of its available resources by asking how else those goals might be accomplished. Also, focusing on your goals can assist in taking an outcome-oriented approach to providing services; having concrete results to show to prospective donors is especially important given the shrinking pool of resources available to nonprofit organizations.

Assess supply and demand to identify gaps in services.

Do we fill a gap in services?

The rule of supply and demand doesn’t only apply to the for-profit world. No matter how great the need for a service, it’s possible for supply to outpace demand. Too much supply leads to a lower return on investment. Even though you aren’t "selling" a product to your clients, you need to "sell" yourself as an organization to prospective donors. If your "market" is becoming inundated with supply, this task becomes increasingly difficult, and you may need to reassess the service you provide.

Understand your organization’s relationship to nearby communities in order to engage volunteers.

How do we see ourselves, our role, and our relationship to the community we serve?

A good understanding of where your organization stands and its relationship to the communities you serve can assist you in activities such as engaging volunteers and can improve your general interactions with the community. The more you can paint a clear picture of how you see your organization serving the local communities, the better able you will be to attract the interest of volunteers and donors alike. Create a value statement that clearly aligns your mission and vision with the interests and needs of nearby communities.

Assess staffing needs to ensure adequate support.

How many and what kinds of people, with what skills, do we need to run our programs and services?

Assessing your staffing needs is crucial to ensure that you have adequate support without stretching your available resources too far. In doing so, you not only need to consider how many people you will need to run the program, but also the criteria in which you will select those individuals. Consider the key characteristics and skills that would be considered best fit within the organization. Are you looking for someone with a history of service in your field? Or are you looking for someone with direct experience in the cause you support? Will you want these individuals to be collaborative or autonomous? Outgoing or reserved? By considering questions such as these, you will be able to paint a clearer picture of your staffing needs.

Work with partners to enhance outreach efforts.

How should we make our best contribution to the social service provider network? What organizations should we collaborate or partner with directly in order to maximize the impact we have on the community?

Although you may provide several services to your community, it’s almost impossible to meet all of your clients’ needs or to identify every individual who could benefit from your services. Working with partners who offer complementary services enables you to better provide for your existing clientele while also enhancing your outreach efforts through the referral process. When considering who would make a good partner, simply think about your clientele and from what other services they might benefit.

CHAPTER 2: Build Your Case for Support

Once you have answered the sustainability planning questions, you will have a solid understanding of your organization’s purpose and contributions to the community. You can use this understanding to determine which people are most likely to support your organization and to create messages that will be effective in gaining their support. A donor will only support an organization if he or she believes in its cause. No matter how effective your organization is in fulfilling its mission, you will fail to find adequate donor support unless you both compose and deliver an effective message. Building a case for support is like advertising. You must narrow your target audience and communicate in a way that attracts their interest. Your “case” is the message that you use to “sell” your organization and its mission to prospective donors.

Step 1: Identify and define the problem(s) addressed by your organization.

The ultimate goal of Step 1 is to answer the “Why should I care?” question for your prospective donors. In order to best address this question, it may be helpful to refer back to the question from the previous section, “What are we trying to accomplish by maintaining our programs or services?” To answer this, identify the services that you provide and consider what problems those services are meant to combat. For example, let’s suppose that your community has a high dropout rate as well as a large number of youth involved in gangs. Your organization runs various after-school programs in your community, offering tutoring and various recreational activities. The problems that these particular programs address could be both dropping out of school and gang involvement, assuming that you can establish a correlation between the two.

When communicating this message of “Why you should care” to your audiences, appeal to them both emotionally and logically. Target the message as much as possible by always keeping the audience in mind! Since catering the message to specific individuals is likely cost prohibitive, the next best thing is to break down the donors into groups by some common factor that characterizes them as a population, ethnic group, geographical community, or other group, and consider instances of each distinct problem addressed through the services you provide.

Step 2: Explain your purpose and your solution to the problem.

No matter how convincingly you portray the seriousness of the problem, donors will not support your organization unless they believe that funding you will make a difference. The goal of Step 2 is twofold:

  1. To establish your organization as a “brand” for your donors
  2. To convince them that you provide the best available solution to the problem.

You need to communicate your purpose in a compact form that donors can identify with and believe in. Point out your successes through statistics, such as numbers served, as well as testimonials from clients (particularly members of your target audience) to demonstrate the impact you’ve had on the community.

Step 3: Share your vision for the future.

Before a donor will want to make a long-term commitment to supporting your organization, they must believe in not only what you’ve done to address the problem in the past, but also on your plans for the future. This involves communicating your vision to your target audiences and describing how you plan to improve upon currently offered services. In addition, use this opportunity to explain how your plans will help address the problem in the future.

Step 4: Define the support needed to accomplish the vision.

If you’ve accomplished the previous three steps, your prospective donor should care about the problem and believe that supporting your organization is a worthy cause. At this point, he or she should be asking, “How can I help?” Obviously, there are numerous costs involved with running an organization and, as a nonprofit, you likely depend upon a combination of donations and grants for your very survival. Donors are more likely to give if they understand these costs and how their gifts might be used. How could a donation of X amount of dollars help fulfill your organization’s vision? Think about all of the costs involved with running your organization. Since your case for support is similar to an advertisement, you should focus on expenses that are most likely to be attractive to your audience, namely the expenses associated with running programs or offering services to clients.

Step 5: Ask for and encourage that support.

Now that you’ve made your case, it’s time to ask for support. Be assertive! Let your prospective donors know how important their support is to you and those you serve and that by supporting the organization, they are making a difference in the community. Also let them know what perks you might have to offer, such as newsletters, recognition, and invitations to special events.

Present your case in an engaging way will attract the interest of your audience.

Your case for support must engage your audience. Passive voice and variations of the verb “to be” are not effective means of conveying the dynamic nature of your organization. Instead, use an active voice. For instance, rather than saying “the Neighborhood Homes Project was founded in 1958 by John and Jane Doe,” say “John Doe founded the Neighborhood Homes Project in 1958.”

It is essential to capture the points that are central to communicating your message by being thorough and concise without losing your audience. Be selective in choosing what points to include and trim any unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Ensure that the appearance of your materials is attractive to the audience. Use a readable font and don’t neglect color scheme or spacing.

For a helpful “on the go” resource about how to present your case, download the form, Tips for Presenting.

CHAPTER 3: Develop Strategies for Establishing Partnerships

Now it’s time to think about specific sustainability strategies. The first strategy to consider is establishing partnerships. There are numerous potential benefits to partnering with other organizations. Not only can partnerships enable you to better serve your clientele, they can also assist with outreach, help you save money, and make you seem more attractive to potential donors.

The Who to Partner With template will assist you in the process of thinking about potential partners.

In the current nonprofit environment, partnerships have become a near necessity. More than ever before, donors are looking for organizations that are positioned to offer comprehensive solutions to their clients’ complex problems. To begin the process of finding and engaging potential partners, download the Who to Partner With Template.

Partner with organizations that are compatible and will enhance your services.

In the space provided on your Who to Partner With template, list the nonprofit organizations operating in the community you serve and examine them by answering the following questions. Do they:

Place a circle around the organizations that meet all three of these criteria. Take some time to contact these organizations and assess their interest in engaging in some level of shared services. Then, put together a meeting with one or more of these organizations to discuss possibilities. The following are a few examples of common shared services:

Appeal to potential partners by outlining key benefits.

In the next section of your Who to Partner With template, tailor a “Case for Partnership” for each the organizations that you circled, outlining the benefits that they stand to gain from partnering with you. Your “Case for Partnership” is not an official document. It essentially consists of a one-page bulleted list of talking points to use when communicating with a potential partner. It is a straight-forward, logical appeal to the benefits of collaborating. You should consider mentioning the following points:

Work with corporations and businesses to develop strategic alliances.

You should also consider developing strategic alliances with corporations and businesses that work with some of the same clients or have other reasons to be interested in the work you do. Stress the impact you’ve had in the community (from your Case for Support), the compatibility of your organizations, and what you could achieve by working together. Emphasize that it makes good business sense. Talk about the trust and reputational boost they could gain by working with you. Another benefit you could mention is the increased employee morale and retention rates enjoyed by companies that are engaged in their communities.

CHAPTER 4: Develop Strategies for Maintaining Partnerships

Once you establish partnerships, you must also work to maintain them. Like people, organizations are dynamic entities that change over time, conceivably to the point where the original basis for a connection no longer makes sense. Ideally, a new basis can be found, particularly if a partnership has borne fruit in the past, but dissolution is certainly common when partners grow too far apart. Don’t wait for this to happen! Be proactive! Take steps to maintain your partnerships! It is useful to think of your partnerships in terms of the bonds that hold you together.

The Maintaining Partnerships template will assist you in developing strategies for maintaining partnerships.

It is important to come up with a sustainability plan for each of your partnerships. Download the Maintaining Your Partnerships Template to assist you in developing strategies for maintaining partnerships.

Over time, your partnerships should evolve.

In the first column of your Maintaining Your Partnership template, list all of the organizations that you are currently partnering with. In the second column, label each partner depending on the category they fall into: transactional, complementary, or collaborative.

A transactional partnership is originally formed to bring about a direct material gain for each member. You agree to share services, such as office space or purchasing power, but little more.

Complementary partners have compatible missions and may work with the same clientele. They are likely to use each other as referral sources and may work together on a community initiative or a grant, but they operate as fully independent entities.

Collaborative partners work together on a much wider scale, integrating one another into daily operations. Members of a collaborative are still independent, but the partners exert considerable influence on one another while working together to fulfill a common vision.

Maintaining your partnerships means keeping them alive and not allowing them to grow stagnant. Sometimes, maintaining the status quo is desirable, but over time it is more likely that the scope of your partnerships should evolve in response to organizational and environmental changes.

Maintaining transactional partnerships requires open communication, trust, and reliability.

Transactional partnerships are need-based. Thus, maintenance entails ensuring that the arrangement continues to fulfill each partner’s needs. Maintenance of a transactional partnership requires both members to openly communicate information pertinent to the agreement. Fostering a sense of trust and reliability serves to strengthen the stability of the agreement, increasing the chances that the nature of your partnership will evolve rather than dissolve as a response to your organizations’ changing needs. Even if a relationship must dissolve, open communication will make you aware of this sooner, giving you time to make new arrangements and insulating you against future uncertainty. Make plans to talk with someone from your partner who either has decision making authority or knowledge of the aspects of his or her organization affected by the agreement. Meet at least twice a year to discuss how the arrangements are working and what adjustments could be made to benefit all or both partners.

Maintaining complementary partnerships requires frequent communication, faith, and awareness.

Complementary partnerships are opportunity-based. These partnerships are formed for benefits such as giving clients access to additional services, increasing visibility, or for winning a grant that neither organization is capable of carrying out alone. As with transactional partnerships, open communication is essential to maintain the partnership, but since your organization’s reputation is likely at least partially at stake, the communication needs to be more regular and its scope needs to be greater. Maintenance of a complementary partnership depends upon each member having faith that the other members will produce high-quality services that are relevant to the work they do. Partners need to be made aware of new organizational developments such as a geographical expansion of services. Also, as opportunities are sometimes fleeting, partners need to be kept aware when new chances to work together arise. If they prove to be reliable, complementary partners are a valuable commodity that can greatly enhance the visibility and success of your organization. Make arrangements to talk at least quarterly to keep one another aware of new developments and opportunities.

Develop earned income strategies to ensure a reliable source of income.

Collaborative partnerships are mission and vision based. A collaborative partnership is formed to combine efforts and resources as a more effective and efficient way to address a common problem. To maintain a collaborative partnership, it is essential that each partner not only be kept informed of, but also that each partner has a say in any decisions concerning significant developments within other partner organizations. The dynamics of a collaborative partnership are complex, so leaders need to agree on a schedule to discuss aspects of the partnership, such as maintenance of a common vision and resolution of any partnership difficulties. Due to the closeness of the partnership, direct interaction is frequent and real human relationships are especially important. To maintain these relationships, you should consider creating institutional structures, such as annual get-togethers, that foster a sense of camaraderie and mutual identity.

The Community Tool Box has additional information concerning how to maintain a coalition, which is essentially the same as a collaborative partnership.

CHAPTER 5: Develop Strategies for Resource Development

One of the most dangerous traps an organization can fall into is an expectation that current sources of revenue will remain consistent and that previously successful fundraising strategies will remain fruitful and sufficient in uncertain economic times. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket! One of the best ways to sustain your organization is to expand your potential revenue sources through developing a vast number of resources.

Seek in-kind contributions to offset expenses and improve organizational effectiveness.

Direct funds are usually your target, but in-kind contributions can help to offset expenses or improve organizational effectiveness. When targeting a donor, think about what else they might have to offer either instead of or in addition to cash gifts. Marketing assistance and/or space to hold an event are just two of many possibilities that you could suggest to appropriately-situated donors.

Recruit volunteers to cut staffing costs.

A well-managed group of volunteers can help you cut down on staffing costs and/or increase the quality or quantity of the services you provide. The following resources can assist you with volunteer recruitment:

Identify and develop donors who share your interests and goals.

Donors don’t just come out of the woodwork. You need to take steps to find, engage, and cultivate both individuals and businesses who share your organization’s interests and goals. The key is to become relationship experts.

Seek grants from diverse sources to increase awareness of opportunities.

Foundations, corporations, and all levels of government are all potential sources of grants. By developing relationships at each level, you can increase your awareness of upcoming opportunities, as well as your likelihood of success when applying for grants.

Develop earned income strategies to ensure a reliable source of income.

By charging a small, below-market fee for the services you provide, you can ensure a reliable source of income for your organization. One strategy to achieve this is to implement a fee-for-service model. Also, the Grantsmanship Center runs an intensive workshop for nonprofits, geared at providing information about planning, developing, and growing an effective earned income program.

Cultivate planned giving arrangements to ensure long-term security.

Planned giving allows a donor to leave money or assets to a nonprofit at the time of his or her death. Although the benefit to the nonprofit is deferred, the promise of future income imparts a measure of long-term security.

Implement an endowment campaign to ensure future sources of income.

An endowment campaign is a fundraiser for the purpose of creating a renewable source of income. Funds from the campaign are placed in an endowment where they are invested. Your organization can draw on the income generated from the investment to meet various operational expenses, but must leave the endowment itself untouched, thereby ensuring that it remains a future source of income.


By completing the steps of the sustainability planning process, you significantly increase your organization’s chances for growth and survival. Even in the midst of uncertainty, you can achieve organizational stability. Thank you for taking the time to learn about creating a sustainability plan for your organization.

Position your organization for sustainability by implementing the steps of the planning process.

  1. Get started by answering questions that position your organization for sustainability.

    Sustainability Planning Questions

  2. Build your case for support by determining who is most likely to support you and how you can tailor your message to that audience.
  3. Targeting Your Audience Template

    Selling Your Organization Template

    Sharing Your Vision Template

    Organizational Costs Template

    Tips for Presenting

  4. Develop strategies for establishing and maintaining partnerships to achieve one common goal of creating partnerships that both support your organization’s mission and make you more attractive to potential donors.

    Who to Partner With Template

    Maintaining Your Partnerships Template

  5. Develop strategies for resource development to expand potential revenue sources.