Building Sustainability into your NGO

What is Sustainability? Sustainability for projects and people
Financial, Organisational and Institutional Sustainability

C O N T E N T S  

  1. What is Sustainability?

  2. Sustainability for projects

  3. Sustainability and people

  4. Financial sustainability

  5. Organisational and Institutional Sustainability

1. What is Sustainability?

A sustainable organisation is one that can continue its activities into the future.

Before any activity is started, the NGO has to ask “How long can we continue?" Not how long we would like to continue, but how long we definitely can continue – to provide, supervise, motivate, train or do what the project needs.

Once you are clear about the lifespan that you can guarantee, then you can fit your activities to the time you have. There may be pressure to plan long-term projects even when the money is not around: your colleagues will be optimistic and assume that funding will appear; and they hope that their jobs and salaries will continue into the future. But it is not that easy.

2. Sustainability for projects

If you have projects which help your beneficiaries, then:

  • either these activities should have a limited life, for example a one-off heath promotion action;

  • or they should be able to survive on their own if and when you stop your financial and supervising support.

    So you should have built a degree of community participation and/or contribution in cash and kind in order to guarantee a minimum level of ownership. Income-generating activities should be making a real income for the target groups and therefore be more than just social schemes. The management of the money involved should follow the same rules as money management within your NGO. 

Example: In Puntland, a Health Centre had been set up by a European NGO and had provided health care. But after six months the NGO lost it source of funding and withdrew. A Micro credit programme, recently started with a remit to help women, decided to keep funding the Health Centre out of its own profits to continue a minimum package of vaccinations and family planning. 

3. Sustainability and people

There are important issues of sustainability if you train people to do a job at village level. Be very careful of, for example, training people in health matters, unless the Ministry of Health or someone else are going to take over responsibility for the trainees and supervise them.

Why? Look at Water and Sanitation projects, where projects need a Hygiene Education component and often train village people in health matters. Then the project ends; the trainees have a certificate, little training and no supervision. They may buy a white coat, start giving injections – perhaps knocking out the teeth of children with diarrhoea or branding them with red-hot bicycle spokes. They can do harm. The same thing happens when NGOs start so-called Primary Health Care projects, train community health workers but disappear after a year. So:

! Be careful of creating a group of workers. Either they should have a future, can be rewarded and supervised; or their task should be self-limiting

4. Financial sustainability

It is possible to ensure financial sustainability but for most NGOs it demands a lot of work. You funding can come from:

  • many tiny donations from community supporters;

  • fewer but larger donations or legacies; 

  • one or more National or International funders;

  • income from savings;

  • income-generating projects.
    EXAMPLE: In west Kenya, where HIV/AIDS is endemic, one NGO has a hearse that is hired out to carry bodies to the graveyard – a small but regular income. 

  • If you have one or more donors, remember that the building of a relationship of trust with your donor(s) is just as important as the amount of money you ask or receive. 

EXAMPLE: A WORKSHOP ON FUNDRAISING FOR A HUMAN RIGHTS NGO IN LESOTHO

This NGO (CLRAC) organised a Workshop on Fund-raising for both staff and Board Members. Together, over three days, the participants worked through the following:

  • a brief evaluation of fund-raising by CLRAC in the past years: conclusions;

  • how to plan the funding needs for CLRAC and set realistic objectives for the period 2000-2002;

  • development of a fund-raising strategy, including: planning/timing of projects and CLRAC organisational costs in need of funding;

  • capacity assessment in CLRAC to conduct fund-raising; how to build in fund-raising capacity: human resources development and organisational development;

  • how to target donors, local and international – and what their requirements are;

  • how to write a proposal for project funding;

  • an outline for financial reporting;

  • a plan to write a Strategic Planning document for implementation of fund-raising by CLRAC;

  • a meeting with a Maseru-based donor representative.

Because the Board members and staff followed the Workshop together, a feeling of commitment and co-working also developed; the Strategic Planning Document got written and some money has been raised.

Accepting the mind-set that will help you succeed:

Non-profit organisations in the South are steadily becoming more professional. For NGOs seeking grants, one of the most important steps is a mental one. They accept that there are no quick fixes, no magic shortcuts. The steady, regular work of your organisation – your board members, your staff responsible for funding – all this will develop an effective strategy through many small steps.

Part of the process is to be clear about what you are – each of you, each a very special NGO – and to make that clear in the documents that go to the possible funder. A Mission Statement that is enthusiastic, imaginative and creative will help a lot.

Can you answer the following questions clearly and directly?

  1. What is the unique purpose of your organisation?

  2. What are the basic needs that this organisation fills? (the target group it serves and how this organisation meets the needs of the beneficiaries)

» For more in-depth guidance, download folder A Guide to Fundraising

5. Organisational and Institutional Sustainability

Organisational sustainability:

An organisation is like a plant. There is a part of it that is above ground – stem, leaves, fruit. These are the organisational aspects that an outsider can see – the projects, the administration, the capacity building. But there is also the part below the ground – the roots, or institutional aspects of the organisation. This part is strong if the NGO is serious about its purpose, has strong objectives and convictions. If the boss and staff have lost their vision, the roots are weak but may still be rescue-able and a guarantee that the NGO can survive. If the roots have been eaten by pests, no matter how well the office is run, the NGO will die. 

Institutional sustainability:

An NGO which is concerned about long life might choose to do a SWOT – Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses, Threats. For details see The purpose of doing a Swot is twofold; firstly it enables the NGO to find the issues which everyone agrees are strengths, weaknesses etc. The next step is to work with these issues, establish the relationship between them, select the ones which are priority and then transform them into policy issues or Things-to-be-Done. 

EXAMPLE: A PROBLEM OF INSTITUTIONAL SUSTAINABILITY

An Asian NGO had the stated aim of improving the skills of farmers throughout the country. However there was also an unwritten aim, held by the boss and most of the Board; that was to spread the culture of the majority ethnic group into minority areas. This aim had changed the nature of services for the worse. There was no serious decentralisation and all training was in the majority language even where the farmers could not understand it. Project workers were becoming increasingly demoralised. 

This kind of Institutional problem is fundamental, is corrupting and would probably sabotage any attempt to build a good strong NGO. To bring the problem into the open and make the organisation an honest one would be very difficult - but it could be done in the future.

» Information can also be found in Chapter 12 of folder How to Build a Good Small NGO.

NGO SKILLS

Our NGO SKILLS section gives some essential information and recommended links to more

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