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Top 10 Sustainability Tips for NPOs

Non profit sustainability is the confounding buzz word of our sector – it seems that every request for proposals now has a lengthy sustainability component or question. But it can be hard for organisations to articulate clear strategies to ensure their ongoing viability, particularly in an uncertain funding environment with competing demands on their time and resources.

“It’s not enough to have a high-impact programme if there’s no effective strategy for sustaining the organisation financially. And neither is it enough to be financially stable: we build our organisations for impact, not for financial stability.”

– NonProfit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman.

The NACOSA Training Institute has pulled together 10 tips and tactics to help organisations survive and thrive in a volatile environment. These may not be novel approaches or magically produce a flow of income but they are worth considering and plotting your organisation’s sustainability plans against.


The first step into building the capacity of an organisation is to ensure that both the staff providing the core services, as well as those in support roles, have the appropriate technical skills to deliver good practice and high impact services. Is your child and youth care worker properly trained to adhere to all the legislation and requirements for working with vulnerable children? Does your administrator have information on the most cost-effective travel options? Do your board members understand their role in guiding the organisation?


Measure all your planned operational activities against your vision and mission. Ask yourself: is this our core business? Is this what we want to achieve? None of the practices in your organisation should contradict the core values of your organisation. It is easy to have mission-creep when times are tough and you are scrabbling for funds but this is the reason your organisation exists – don’t let it slip.


Good governance needs living policies and procedures – not only documents on a shelf in a fancy file. These should ensure proper process and implementation flow in your organisation which will contribute to good performance. And good performance is what keeps funding flowing. Apart from the basic policies such as finance, HR, admin and documentation, IT, occupational health and safety, you should also have policies and procedures that cover your specific field of expertise – for example child protection, learning programme delivery and so on.


It is essential to be compliant with the relevant legal and professional bodies relevant to your field of implementation. Make sure you are up to speed with the requirements of the NPO Directorate in the Department of Social Development to stay registered as an NPO or service provider. Ensure your PBO status isn’t compromised. These are often the minimum requirements for funders and partners. Do not compromise on your annual reports and financial statements and make sure you make the best possible use of the resources you have. Your responsible stewardship of funds to beneficiaries is one of your primary roles as a non profit organisation. Financial efficiency is the cornerstone of sustainability.


Do you still do things the way you did 20 years ago? Even though your core objectives have stayed the same, have you moved with the times in respect to new technology, current research and methodologies on programmatic areas? Are you well informed of the current non profit landscape and funding trends in South Africa? When times are tough, it’s a case of adapt or die.


You should produce and submit funding proposals to a range of different donors on a continuous basis. Even though not all your applications will be successful, you will go through a valuable learning process of tailoring your offering to a range of audiences, understanding what it is funders look for and getting valuable feedback from funders on how you can do things better in the future. Having a range of different types of funders means that if misfortune strikes (an economic crisis, a funder going bankrupt) you are able to continue your valuable work. And remember: if you don’t ask, you will not receive.


What does your organisation do well that you can potentially earn an income from? Know the area you work in and the socio-economic trends in that area so that you can identify potential income generation programmes that can benefit your community and your organisation. Invest some time in a SWOT analysis of your organisation as well as area of operation and brainstorm some sustainability ideas and innovations that can ultimately form part of the strategic plan for your organisation. Think of things that will provide a regular income that you can use for things that you can’t get donor funding for.


In the current financial and socio-economic environment, where funding opportunities are limited, it is essential to form creative and collaborative partnerships with other NPOs to strengthen and support each other in achieving a common goal. Your organisation may have a core competency that could be useful to another organisation in applying for funding or starting an income generating project or programme. Investigate ways that you can share overhead costs. Join forces with other organisations and in that way broaden your reach.


Sustainable organisations do not operate in a silo but are active in their community and contribute towards bringing about positive change – be it at a local, district, provincial or national level. Use your experience and knowledge to influence positively.


Ultimately, NPOs should also look at their carbon footprint and implement sustainable strategies. Do you have an office recycling programme? What are you doing to save energy and water? Have you looked at low-cost green technology in your offices to promote staff and beneficiary wellness and productivity? There may not be a community in which to work tomorrow, if we do not take care of our natural resources today.

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