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Step 9: Sustainability​

When we hear the word “sustainability” we often think of fundraising.  However, sustaining your social change work requires more than generating funding.  Financial sustainability, combined with long-term leadership and organizational planning will ensure that not only your dollars, but your work, will go further.


Financial sustainability is rooted in a fundraising model that combines individual donations, grants from foundations, corporate partnerships and fundraising events.  Leadership sustainability is about expanding and growing your team, as well as building a leadership pipeline that supports individual growth.  Organizational sustainability is establishing the governance structure that allows you to operationalize your work.


A. Building Financial Sustainability


Financial sustainability is one of the largest obstacles for all non-profit organizations. Your team is going to need to raise money in order to pay for your materials and supplies as well as cover administrative costs. The first step is to perform a needs assessment. Formulate a list of what materials are necessary to start up your team and keep it running. Use this list to solicit donations from local businesses, just like in Step Six.


a.   Needs Assessment + Budgeting


From your needs assessment, establish a budget, and then stick to it. This is one of the most important aspects of sustaining your team. Know exactly what your team needs and raise the money to make it happen. This budget will look just like your event budgets, but the items on it will be a little different. Be sure to specify which items are start-up costs and which are monthly. Once you know how much money your team will need to start up and then how much it will need each month, set up a plan so your income matches your expenses. This will probably involve a combination of donations and fundraisers.


Your needs assessment will undoubtedly include materials and supplies you may be able to get donated by a local business. This is the same process you used when soliciting donations for an event. Send letters to local businesses including specific items you’d like them to donate and the importance of your group in the local community. Local businesses enjoy supporting local ventures, so take advantage. A few ideas of places to contact are hardware stores, grocery stores, copy stores, law offices and partnering organizations, schools, and art supply stores.

Not everything can be obtained through donations, however. Local discounts and exclusive partnerships with certain stores also work well. This type of negotiation is best when discussed in person with the store manager of a store your team frequents. It works particularly well with local copy stores. Choose a local store to be the copy store for your team. After you go there numerous times, the employees will recognize you and get to know you and may be willing to offer a discount.


b.   Types of Fundraising: Individual Donors


Individual donors make up the majority of revenue for most non-profit organizations.  Whether they are reoccurring donors with regular membership fees, high dollar donors that make large contributions or donors that respond to online or mail campaigns, individual donors can play a large role in supporting your social change work.  Fundraising is all about relationship building and communicating a value proposition for your work that appeals to an individual donor.


i. Peer to Peer:

Peer to Peer fundraising is an extremely successful and easy way to raise money. Peer to Peer fundraising is based around the idea that you ask your friends, family and neighbors to support a cause that is important to you. These people are more likely to give because you already have a relationship and investment in things that are important to you. The success behind P2P fundraising is the personal connection between fundraiser and donor. 


Peer to Peer fundraising can also incorporate a variety of methods, including building online awareness through social media and personal letters of request sent via mail or online. Again, the key to all P2P messaging is to keep it personal. Are you writing a letter to grandma? Tell her why this cause is important to you and ask her to support it, and you, by helping you reach your fundraising goal – and maybe thank her for those great goodie baskets filled with cookies she sends, too.


ii. Written Appeals:

Another way to effectively raise money for your team is through soliciting individual donations through letters and emails. These can be written to your family, close friends, and co-workers. People who support you will generally be supportive of your cause. In the letter, you can ask either for a specific amount or ‘whatever you can give.’ Use your best judgment and choose the one you are most comfortable with. If you ask for a specific amount, aim high but keep it reasonable and respectful. Be sure to personalize your letter or email to the individual and your relationship to them.


Reaching out to companies or acquaintances for support will need to be a bit more formal than with your peers. You’ll want to look professional and legitimate in order for someone to feel comfortable investing their funds. This is a great time to use the style guide (link) you’ve created.


Fundraising letters should be brief (one page should do the trick) and have a clear message requesting support. It’s important to make the person or company your reaching out to feel like their contribution is crucial and impactful to your cause. Use words and phrases “Together,” and “With your support,” to create camaraderie and feeling of an alliance.


You can also call people personally to ask for a donation. Call only people you know or have some connection to and be sure to tell them how you are connected so they will trust you. Think of the people you would contact by mail and determine if they would be more likely to respond to a phone call. If so, give them a call and be prepared to send supplementary materials. If they ask for more information, send it as soon as you get off the phone before they forget who you are and what you want. Send a follow-up email to everyone who showed interest on the phone.


Tips for donation success:

  • Make your request clear. Don’t hide the “ask,” at the end or beginning of your letter, incorporate and repeat it throughout your letter.

  • Equate the monetary request in terms of service or tangible goods. i.e. “Your gift of $20.00 helps provide three complete meals for a family of four.”

  • Know your donor. The secretary at the bank may really love your cause, but your request of $500.00 is out of her budget. Individual donations should be sensible and something your donor would be willing to part with.

  • Give options. You need to provide your potential donor with a requested amount, but giving them a range can help them decide where they best fit in support. A safe range for the average donor starts at $20 and goes to $250.


iii.Online Donation Platforms

Another great way to reach individual donors is through online giving platforms.  There are numerous companies that have developed donation tools to support social change causes and can give you access to a new network of donors.  Platforms that encourage donors to share their gift with their personal networks through Facebook and Twitter can also increase awareness about your cause and expand your reach.


Here are a few donation platforms to check out:

  • Paypal Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative platforms. Every project creator sets their project's funding goal and deadline. Donors pledge money and if the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers' credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged. Funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing.

  • Causes is a free online platform that provides easy-to-use tools for driving change. The platform offers ways for people to share ideas, find supporters, raise money, and make an impact.

  • Crowdrise. Crowdrise is an online community of philanthropists. It is free to register and offers a unique blend of online fundraising, crowdsourcing, social networking and contests.


d. Types of Fundraising: Foundations and Grants


Foundations, similar to non-profit organizations, have a social change mission and have chosen grantmaking as the mechanism for achieving their vision for a better world.  Applying for a grant is a lengthy process and requires significant accountability for your performance.  However, grants can also offer access to greater financial support and resources provided through the foundation’s community of grantees, experts, and supporters.


The first step before applying for a grant is researching a foundation to determine if they would fund your cause.  Start by visiting their website, reading their mission statement, identifying their key funding areas, reviewing their past grantees, determining their average grant size and understanding their application process.  Also, visit their Staff and Board webpage to determine whether you or a member of your team has any connections to the foundation.  Like individual donors, building a relationship with a member of the foundation staff can go a long way to successfully being awarded a grant.


After doing your homework and determining that a foundation is a good fit, then you must review their grant application process.  Many foundations require the submission of a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) before applying for a grant.  This gives them the opportunity to determine if they are interested in funding your cause before you complete a full proposal.  If approved, you can then move forward with the application process.  Pay special attention to all documentation requirements and identify a good writer on your team to craft the narrative of the proposal to address the grant application questions.  Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your proposal from a member of the foundation staff before submitting your final proposal. 


Here are some different types of grants to consider:

  • Local grants. Community foundations are a great place to look for local support. Research local foundations, visit them and find out the best way to apply for funding. Keep in mind that many of these foundations will support community education but not advocacy, so be sure that any funds received from them are spent only on the education aspects of your work.

  • Mini-grants. Many national foundations and organizations give smaller grants to community-based organizations.

  • Youth Grants. Several non-profits and social venture incubators offer grants just to Millennials and young change makers. Check out some of these organizations in the Resources section.


e. Types of Fundraising: Corporate Sponsorships


Large companies and businesses can be a great source of organization support as well as providing other unique benefits. Companies have philanthropic budgets, but they also have bigger and less strict marketing budgets. Instead of strictly targeting the donation funds, look strategically at a business. A great place to start is a Needs and Wants analysis. Do your research and find out what are the greatest needs of this corporation and what are their secondary tiered wants. How can a sponsorship with your charity address these needs or wants?


Do Joe’s Computers need to build traffic to their new store locations? How can you incorporate traffic building elements into your sponsorship proposal? Maybe Joe’s hosts a “Give Back,” month where 20% of all purchases go towards your organization. In turn, you publicize the event on campus to friends, family, and other supporters. You provide new business to Joe’s and he provides you with a financial investment in your organization. Everyone wins!


Corporations can also be great places for in-kind donations. Maybe Joe’s doesn’t need more traffic and can’t afford to donate profits to your organization, but he’s willing to donate a new computer to be raffled off at your fundraising event. In turn, you let all of your attendees know the silent auction item was donated by Joe’s – and place Joe’s logo on your publicity material.


iv.   Types of Fundraising: Events


Traditional fundraising events such as dinners, galas or sports events can be fun, interactive ways for potential donors to be introduced to your organization. Donors feel like they are getting value for their donation because they are getting a product (dinner, a round of golf, etc).


With all fundraising events, remember that you will have to spend some money because you are selling an experience. Create a comfortable spending budget (30%? 50%?), and stick to it. Use that percentage as motivation to hit your fundraising goal. Remind your team that if you are going to stay on budget, they need to sell 10 more tickets each, or find two new $500 sponsors. Always keep your budget front and center to monitor.


Your organization can incorporate smaller fundraising elements into the event to raise addition funds.


Following is a list of fundraiser ideas, but be creative and tailor your idea to your community:

  • Local restaurants. Many restaurants, including large chains, will offer a percentage of their sales for a day or a meal if you refer people to the restaurant. Spread flyers and handouts telling people about the fundraiser and remind them to mention that they are patronizing the business on behalf of your group.

  • Happy Hour/Reception. Local bars/restaurants also offer discounts if you host your fundraiser at their business. You can use this Happy Hour discount as a way to attract people to attend your event and pay admission.

  • Fraternity/sorority sponsorships. Most Greek chapters have hundreds of dollars to spend on philanthropy every year, so make your team their philanthropic project. They will donate a certain amount of money to you each semester and you may be able to use their house as a venue for events and socials.


C. Building Leadership Sustainability


a.   Adapting Team Structure

As your project grows and becomes more successful, your team will need to grow with it.  Each year, reassess the needs of your core group and consider whether people are happy serving in their current roles.  Are there new areas of expertise they have developed that would benefit the team in different ways?  Are there skills they would like to develop that could be fostered in a new role?  Is anyone not able to maintain their commitment to the group?


It is also important to consider your group structure and how you govern yourselves and your work.  As you expand, you may experience growing pains, so remember to take the time to reflect internally.  There may be a need to add more members to your core group to manage the workload.  Continue to offer new opportunities for volunteers and supporters to become part of the leadership in your core group.


b.   Building Leadership Pipeline

The corporate adage that “our people are our greatest asset” can offer an important lesson.  Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in your work and forget about the care and feeding of yourself and your team.  To avoid you or your team members from burning out, you must take time to reflect on your purpose, revisit your mission and remind yourselves how each of you is contributing to the change you want to see in your community.


It is also important to develop a leadership pipeline that will sustain your work beyond one person.  This can be done by offering opportunities for personal growth and development to all members of the team.  The leadership expansion of all your team members is especially critical in a college setting when the sustainability of your project depends on the continued involvement and addition of new members each academic year.  This is also true of startups and new social ventures where a change in leadership could have a significant impact on the work.  The stronger your team at all levels, the more sustainable your work will be.


Here are some tips for building a strong leadership pipeline:

  • Take an annual retreat to bond as a team and give everyone an opportunity to renew their commitments to your work

  • Attend leadership seminars or training that help you and your team members strengthen their skills sets

  • Build a network of like-minded people working for social change to share your challenges with and act as a sounding board

  • Read blogs and articles about social sector practices

  • Seek out mentors or coaches for yourself and your work


D. Building Organizational Sustainability


One of the best ways to make your team visible in a college setting is to establish it as a student group on campus. Although the methods for doing this vary by school, the basic rules are the same. Start by going to your office of student life and finding out how to create a student group on campus. They will give you the proper paperwork and instructions. Follow the instructions, including getting the necessary support and writing a constitution. Submit the paperwork and attend the necessary meetings to get your club approved. Hold your first meeting and use the school’s resources to advertise it. Once you are established as a student group, you will have access to certain perks, which often include the opportunity to get on-campus office space, school funding, and the support of the office of student life.


Now that you have registered a campus group to carry the team forward after your departure, raised the money necessary for your team to operate, and established a structure to carry out your advocacy, your team is ready. Get out there and change the world!

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