Nonprofits aim to make an impact: to help more homeless people put a roof over their heads, to provide a community with opportunities for artistic fulfillment, to make more people better, to empower disadvantaged groups to fight oppression. Sustainability is the ability to sustain the work and the impact for as long as there is a need for them. A nonprofit can sustain its work if it can secure the resources it needs, and then put these to best use - use only what is needed and apply them in ways that have the greatest mission effect. If it is to fulfill these conditions, a nonprofit needs to have:
- A mission and goals that are very clearly defined in terms of outcomes – if they are not clear, then it will not be evident that the resources available are actually being applied to achievement of the outcomes.
- The "right" programs - that is, interventions, services or activities that are likely to have the greatest impact. Just because a program "does good" doesn't mean that it's making the best use of the resources available: a poor production of a play may be a good try but it isn't the best use of the theater or actors.
- Sources of support (in dollars and/or in kind) that are the most likely to cover the amount and kinds of services and activities in which the nonprofit engages.
- An efficient allocation of resources in support of the nonprofit programs (for example, a decision to outsource back-office functions rather than run them in house.) These will be underpinned by efficient management systems and processes, including good planning.
- Staff with sufficient commitment to the nonprofit’s work and the skills to deliver it.
- A systematic means of reviewing progress and learning from it, so that more resources can be raised if they are needed and/or the resources of the nonprofit can be allocated differently.
NCNE believes that the most effective way of achieving sustainability is through enterprise. Our central concept is that of the “Nonprofit Entrepreneur,” and our definition is based on that of a champion of entrepreneurship, Joseph Schumpeter. In our view, she or he is an innovator that secures and combines resources efficiently (efficiently here meaning for the maximum mission impact at the lowest cost.) NCNE President Dennis Young has been writing about and around this concept for 25 years or more. The word “enterprise” has recently been in danger of being hijacked, with the advent of the phrase "social enterprise" and there are those who believe that being “entrepreneurial” means the same as earning revenue. NCNE is a passionate supporter of earned income as a way of achieving mission and improving sustainability but as one means among many, not as a defining characteristic of Nonprofit Entrepreneur.