In the physical world, “sustainability” generally refers to the use of resources in such a way that does neither permanent harm to the environment, nor depletes its natural resources. It is a state of ecological balance in which society’s impact on the world does not exceed the ability of nature to regenerate itself.
While we might differ as to the environmental policies we choose, and often disagree vehemently about the impact of some of those policies, the overall goal of environmental sustainability just makes good old common sense. We should all want to achieve environmental sustainability. Our planet needs to be protected so that it will thrive for the sake of our children, grandchildren and the generations to follow.
The concept of sustainability has long been applied to the charitable world as well. Nonprofit sustainability traditionally refers to a charity’s ability to achieve a state of financial balance in which the revenue it expends to fulfill its mission does not exceed the revenue it generates.
This too is just common sense. A nonprofit organization needs to operate responsibly and modestly, scrutinizing expenses so that it can live within its budget. Like many donors, I want the charities I love to thrive so they can continue doing their important work for generations to come. Regrettably, the concept of nonprofit sustainability has become twisted and contorted into an idea that is placing problematic and often unrealistic expectations on our charities.
Unfortunately, too many donors and foundations have come to redefine nonprofit sustainability as the idea that charities should not become “dependent on funders.” On its surface, this sounds like an appropriate expectation for nonprofit organizations because it’s the same standard we reasonably use for many of the people in our lives. As parents we want our children to become independent of us. Hence we feed, clothe, and educate our kids until they are able to take care of themselves. As taxpayers, we want the poor and downtrodden to become independent of government assistance. So we invest in human service programs and job training so that they might be able to find a job and ultimately support themselves.
Thus, some donors and foundations argue that after giving to a charity over several years, the nonprofit organization should become “sustainable” in the sense that they are no longer dependent on their donation. The problem is that with few exceptions, there rarely is sufficient earned revenue generated by these charities to pay for their own operations. These are nonprofit organizations for an obvious reason – because there is no profit to be made. The vast majority of charities need to supplement their earned income (if any) with contributions from the donors and foundations of their community.
Think of it this way. Have you ever known a billionaire who made his or her money running a charity? I have yet to encounter the Sam Walton of domestic violence programs, the Bill Gates of animal shelters, or the Jeff Bezos of after-school programs for low-income kids.
It’s obvious that most human service organizations generate little if any earned revenue and thus are dependent on contributions, but this also applies to many charities that generate substantial revenue from ticket sales, fees or membership dues. Northern Sky Theater might be able to survive without charitable contributions, but to do so they would need to raise their ticket prices so high that only the wealthiest families could afford their shows. The Boys and Girls Club could keep its doors open without the community’s donations if it rebranded itself as the Boys and Girls Private Country Club and raised its annual membership fee from $10 to $10,000.
Insisting that nonprofit organizations cease being dependent on their donors is an unrealistic goal unless we are willing to accept that they should be open only to those who can afford to pay for the services they offer. Of course, if a charity existed solely to serve the wealthy, that would contradict their charitable mission in the first place.
Like too many words that have been usurped and perverted by our current political climate, the word “dependent” has taken on an exclusively negative connotation. That’s unfortunate because like most words, context is critical to meaning. The dictionary definition of dependent is “relying on someone or something else for aid or support.” That can be a problem if it’s a healthy adult who is dependent on a parent (or the government) because they refuse to work hard and pay their own way. However, there is nothing inherently negative about a charity being dependent on its family of donors. In fact, it can be a beautiful thing.
At the root of dependent is the word “depend.” That’s one of our most respected values and greatest compliments. When times are tough, you know you can depend on him. I highly recommend her – you can really depend on her. Dependable folks are the ones on which you can rely. These are the people you can truly trust.
In the traditional sense, the Door County Community Foundation is a completely sustainable nonprofit because we live within our means, operate modestly and balance our budget. Yet let me be the first to freely and openly admit that the charity for which I work is dependent on the kindness of people who love this community. Thankfully, we are blessed with countless admirable and amazing friends on whom we are able to depend every day.
The community foundation has distributed millions and millions of dollars to support charitable work on our little peninsula. An incredible number of Door County’s residents depend on the community foundation. But to be able to fulfill our charitable mission, the community foundation depends on the unselfish contributions of wonderful people like you. Your generosity is our sustainability.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on September 2, 2016.