We say that attaining sustainable funding requires each nonprofit organization to clarify its specific metrics, timeline, and plan for reaching the goal. Otherwise it will never happen.
To inspire each team to think big, we challenge them to imagine what life would be like at their organization if worrying about funding were no longer an issue. What if the basic day-to-day financial needs were handled and your organization could move onto fulfilling the next level of your mission—developing the programs you know would make a difference, staffing the departments that leverage the greatest results in the community, undergirding your infrastructure to sustain your operations going forward? How would that change the self-image of your organization, the quality of the work, and the outcomes?
What would have to have happened to make that possible? How much money would be in the bank and by when? How many months of operating reserves would it take for your organization to feel secure: three months, one year, two years? How many individual donors would you have? Would you want to have a big endowment?
At the school where I began to develop the Benevon Model, our definition of sustainable funding ultimately included an endowment fund that was large enough to generate in interest enough money to cover the annual operational gap that we struggled to raise each year. This does not mean, however, that after we had funded our endowment, the school no longer needed to raise funds. On the contrary, they worked as hard as ever to raise more funds and to engage the community in their work.
Like your organization’s mission, the mission of the school was broader than just educating its current students. They wanted to dispel myths, build bridges in the community, educate more students, and support their families. Having an endowment that covered much of the annual financial operating gap meant the administrators were not waking up in the middle of the night worrying about closing the school’s doors. Even with a generous endowment, there was still plenty of fundraising and other work to be done to fulfill the school’s larger mission.
Quantifying Your Legacy
Each group uses different metrics to track their progress in fulfilling their objectives. Some define sustainability as an endowment large enough to throw off in earnings enough money to cover their annual operating shortfall or gap. Their ultimate metric might be to have a $20 million endowment that will generate $1 million a year in income.
Other groups define sustainability as a reserve fund or pot of money set aside that they can get their hands on when they need it. They may decide, for example, that if they had a reserve fund large enough to cover one year’s operations, they could manage the uncertainties of their multiple funding sources year by year. That one year’s reserve fund becomes their metric.
Some groups define sustainability as having a higher percentage of their revenue coming from individual donors. Instead of having 95% of their revenue coming from government grants, 4% from corporations and foundations, and 1% from individuals, their metric may be to increase the 1% from individual giving to 5%.
Still other groups define sustainability as a percentage increase in the number of individual donors they now have, for example, increasing their current number of 200 major donors by 100% to 400 major donors. Of course, each group would define “major” donor for itself.
Another metric might be increasing the raw number of individual donors by a certain amount, for example, adding 100 new major donors per year, or reaching a total of 500 donors. Groups might put specific conditions on these goals, such as requiring that each donor has an ongoing open pledge to contribute at least $1,000 a year for each of the next five years. Their metric is the number of new donors at these levels.
In addition to establishing hard financial and donor metrics, we encourage each group to quantify their goals for softer intangibles like broader community awareness, more people requesting to become board members or volunteers, favorable media coverage, and more support from foundations and businesses. For many groups, these softer benefits are more valuable than the money raised.
Far and away, the number-one benefit our groups report from implementing the Benevon Model is that they are no longer the “best-kept secret” in town. People know them now. One behavioral health organization we work with is located in a rural community with a population of only 2,500 people. Yet people in the town did not know what was really going on inside their building. By the end of their first year using the model, all that had changed. They now had business support, favorable media coverage, and many passionate advocates championing their work at public meetings and the state legislature at budget time. Those results are hard to quantify.
We also understand that each organization’s metrics for attaining sustainable funding may change over time. As they achieve one goal, such as having a reserve fund of a specific amount, they may decide next to embark on a capital campaign or build an endowment, goals which may have been unthinkable until now.
Here are the specific questions to guide this important discussion with your group:
- How will we quantify our legacy of sustainable funding for this organization?
- Short-term goals for the next five years?
- Long-term goals for the next 10 to 15 years?
- Be sure to include in these goals specific metrics, for example:
- $25 million endowment
- Reserve fund of one year’s operating expenses
- 20% increase in individual donors
- Diversifying funding sources by increasing funding from individual donors by 20%
- What would be the impact of attaining this legacy?
- On the people we serve?
- On our community?
The legacy you want to leave needs to be crystal clear before you begin to implement the systematic approach provided by the Benevon Model. Take the time you need to quantify—and get excited about—what sustainable funding would look like for your organization. You will need it to inspire your group as you embark on the work ahead!