Don’t Be a Gopher: Nonprofit Marketing and Program Sustainability

Kylie Hutchinson

Is program sustainability something your nonprofit talks about? Kylie Hutchinson explains why it should be in today’s guest post. ~Kristina

Guest Post by Kylie Hutchinson

More than ever, program sustainability is a concern for nonprofits and the grantmaking organizations that fund them. But achieving sustainability can be a challenge, particularly when the flashy new pilot project that everyone loves eventually matures and becomes yesterday’s news.

Promoters of Program Sustainability

“If you receive this grant, how will you sustain the project over time?”

If you’ve ever seen this question on a grant application before, I’m guessing it’s one that you and many other nonprofits struggle to answer confidently. For years, I used to guiltily make up something that I thought the funder wanted to hear. Then one day I had an opportunity to delve into the research on what factors are associated with greater program sustainability.

What I learned surprised me greatly.

It turns out the key to program sustainability isn’t luck or magic, and neither is it rocket science. In fact, most of the main promoters of program sustainability read like best practices for operating a nonprofit: diversified funding, collaborative partnerships, evaluation and performance measurement, community support, and program champions. But there are other predictors you might not immediately think about, including high visibility.

High Visibility

Organizational visibility surfaces repeatedly in studies as being strongly associated with program sustainability.

Years ago, I remember reading a feature article about a long-time politician who went back to working in the nonprofit sector once his party lost the election. The newspaper was profiling his transition and what it was like to go from having a lot of power to being the executive director of a small community organization. In the article, he mentioned how going back reminded him of how much excellent work was being done by nonprofits at the community level.

I found this statement a bit shocking coming from a person who had held important portfolios in the government including the Minister of Health. I thought to myself, Seriously? You weren’t aware? What were you doing all that time in office?

But then it occurred to me that as nonprofits, we also have a responsibility to ensure our stakeholders and the general public knows and understands our work.

Down the Gopher Hole

I’m sure you’re aware of many excellent programs that are making positive impacts in your community.

But does everyone else know this?

There’s a lot of noise in our everyday lives, and it’s easy for your organization or program to get lost amidst competing voices.

Unfortunately, many busy managers are like gophers, their heads down in the hole working frantically on day-to-day issues and neglecting to pop their heads up once in a while to tell the world what they’ve achieved.

All too often, marketing is the activity that gets ignored, to the detriment of not only your public profile but also your overall sustainability.

How can people support you over the long-term if they don’t know who you are, what you do, and what you’ve accomplished?

Two Kinds of Plans

A formal marketing plan can go a long way towards building the support you need to thrive in the long run.

Programs with a clear communications plan are better able to promote their successes and develop a constituency of support in their community, another strong predictor of sustainability. But this is only half the equation.

The other thing you need is a sustainability plan.

I’ve always found it curious that while many organizations diligently develop strategic plans, few take the time to craft a sustainability plan. A sustainability plan is a conscious response to the fearful dilemma of what to do if you lose a major funding stream.

And let me tell you, at some point, most of you will lose a major funding stream.

An ideal sustainability plan is one that you develop at the beginning of a program, includes multiple strategies, and becomes a part of your organization’s overall strategic plan.

Develop a communications plan is a common strategy in many sustainability plans.

If your program is already out of the gate, it’s not too late to draft one. Just don’t leave it until three months before your seed funding ends. Building capacity to sustain your program will take time and effort, so the sooner you start, the better.

Best of all, unlike some planning processes, you can complete your sustainability plan relatively quickly. Most organizations can do it in a day or less and frequently tell me how much they enjoyed the process.

The link between your visibility as an organization, effective marketing, and your long-term sustainability is critically important.

So, what are you waiting for?

Take charge of your marketing and sustainability today to watch your programs not only survive, but thrive!

Kylie Hutchinson is a planning, evaluation, and program sustainability expert with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation. Her book Survive and Thrive: Three Steps to Securing Your Program’s Sustainability is a nominee for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s 2017 Terry McAdam Book Award. 

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Author: Kristina Leroux, Community Engagement Manager

I am the Community Engagement Manager at Nonprofit Marketing

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