Tips & Tools #4: Building an Organization? Sustainability Matters

by Wade Rathke  in Columbia Free Press August 16th, 2018

An issue might be burning through the community. Friends and colleagues might always be talking about a nagging issue. A problem or grievance that might have seemed personal turns out to be shared by many who want a vehicle to demand justice and win change. Whatever triggers the drive to build an organization dedicated to building power and achieving change, if is worth doing, it is important to keep alive, and that means that sustainability always matters.

Sustainability in organizing is a euphemism for self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency requires organizational control of financing.

There are two sources of organizational funding. One is external funding and the other is internal financing. Sustainability privileges either source if it is driven and determined by the organization itself.

External funding from government or foundation grants is never sustainable, because by definition such funding is always outside of the control of the organization. It comes and it goes based on decisions and criteria outside of the control of the organization. There are strings attached. There are “deliverables.” There are rules and regulations. Worse, external funding for social change organizations has become increasingly transactional, rather than transformative. There is almost invariably a quid pro quo, something wanted and required to receive the money. General support has become exceedingly rare in modern external fundraising.

That doesn’t mean that an organization should never except external funding, but it should be received only as a means to an end, and the end must include sustainability. External funding has to be the organizational equivalent of venture capital, allowing the organization to do things it might otherwise have been unable to do. The caveat requires that a plan to build permanent capacity and replicable resources has to be imbedded in the implementation of any external grant. If not, external funding can sidetrack an organization and be the classic gift horse where the organization should have done a closer inspection of the teeth.

Worse, an organization should never make decisions about hiring, staff compensation, or rental space based on the receipt of outside funding, because by definition anything that is not internally replicable is not sustainable.

Internal financing runs the gamut from membership dues, sustainer contributions, pancake breakfasts, fish dinners, annual banquets, rummage sales, and a thousand other projects along with the sweat equity of the members, organizers, and leaders. These events are all within the capacity of the participants in the organization and directly involve the potential beneficiaries and constituency of the organization.

An organization also controls its own ability to go to the general public for support. Technically, they are external to the organization, but replicable and sustainable. Seeking donors, running pledge drives, canvassing in public locations or other neighborhoods, tagging on street corners, all involve asking for and receiving public support.

A disciplined schedule of internal fundraising can raise significant organizational resources. Once routinized and regularly repeated, sustainability becomes a foundational principle.

Practicing that principle assures an organization’s survival and that alone should be enough to prove that sustainability always matters.