Many funders and business people seem to believe that if non-profits just try hard enough, they will be self-sufficient and “sustainable.” If they’re not, they shouldn’t be supported. Is sustainability in fact a reasonable goal for nonprofits? Can it ever be more than a requisite paragraph or two we are forced to include in our funding proposals?
Can nonprofits really be expected to be 'sustainable'?

Blogger Vu Le questions the very notion of nonprofit self-sufficiency, arguing that it is very rarely, if ever, attained at all. For the vast majority of us, pursuit of the illusive concept is not merely Quixotesque, but usually self-destructive. Le argues that:

1.  Sustainability is in large part determined by funders, not non-profits.
2.  Paradoxically, the “tough love” stance taken by some funders actually hinders sustainability by forcing NPOs to rely on short term, “Frankensteined together” funding.
3.  Sustainability depends on the whole organization being strong, yet funders do not like providing general operating funds.
4.  Pressure on nonprofits to be self-sufficient can lead to mission creep as they chase after increasingly creative funding sources—wasting time and resources and confusing the organisation’s public image.
5.  The nonprofit model is unique in that success at carrying out their missions leads to increasing costs, not revenues.
6.  Non-profits, by definition, will always be reliant on funders for support.

While expecting nonprofits to be self-sustaining seems logical, it is in fact something of a double standard. Imagine, says Vu Le, “what it would be like if we imposed this onto other important fields, like public education.”

Vu Le champions a more modern view of philanthropy. Instead of viewing nonprofits as parasites, donors and funders should embrace their symbiotic relationship. One has the means, the other the know-how. Together they work towards fulfilling a need or championing a cause.

First published on the Inyathelo Blogspot on 4 August 2015.