Here in Los Angeles, leaders across the region are working to identify ways to safely reopen the economy. Some sectors are eager to get back to business, while others are worried about whether or not it is safe to return. But for the most part, the nonprofit sector has stayed in business out of necessity. Nonprofits are too often a lifeline for vulnerable communities during times of crisis, and, during the pandemic especially, unemployment rates have ballooned, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities.
I’ve spoken to various nonprofit leaders here in Los Angeles and everyone is working more than ever before—and many of us were workaholics long before the pandemic! But even in overdrive, some organizations are struggling to identify the resources to pay their bills, to maintain their payrolls, and to continue service. The sector that is arguably the most needed is itself struggling to survive. “Sustainability” seems out of reach.
What do we do? Is our work “sustainable”? Not in the traditional sense of generating your own revenue so you don’t need to rely on any outside support. But, there are some things we can do now to reposition our organizations—and in so doing, the nonprofit sector overall—to better, and more sustainably, serve our communities.
- Get paid for your services. At times, our fundraising efforts are limited to applying for grants and seeking out individual donations. These are critical avenues of income generation, but we should also consider the ability of our organizations to build out a healthy portfolio of “fee-for-service” clients. When my organization, Inclusive Action, was established over 10 years ago, we knew it was going to take a bit of time for funders to support our work, no matter how much we needed it and no matter how great the programs were.Unfortunately, grantmaking is often relationship-based, and those relationships aren’t established overnight. We needed unrestricted support that invested in our community-serving projects; however, without having the luxury of waiting for that first grant, we had to look for other ways to generate revenue. For us, the ability to take on mission-aligned fee-for-service work helped bring in unrestricted resources into the organization. The revenue generated by designing programs for other nonprofits or government entities, for example, helped subsidize some of the projects we were leading ourselves.
- Advocate for change. The calls to #defundpolice are a cry for all of us to imagine a world where resources are invested in services that heal people, not harm them. This year, 54% of the City of Los Angeles’ discretionary budget is proposed to go to the LA Police Department. The police department will experience a budget increase while every other department is facing proposed budget cuts. Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles, and other groups are asking for a disinvestment of resources from the police department and a redirection of those resources into “human-centered” initiatives on housing, child development and food security.Many of us can agree, especially in the nonprofit sector, that our public budgets often don’t reflect our values. We can change that. Some organizations may be wary of stepping into something so “controversial,” but I’d argue that the most effective organizations understand how they fit into an ecosystem of service providers. Their participation in the ecosystem of justice-seeking organizations informs their work, and the most visionary organizations understand further how they can advocate for better systems that justly invest in the services their communities need. I believe that this advocacy should be undertaken not simply to support the programs that we ourselves may administer, but also to move resources to meaningfully fix systems that can put us out of a job.
- Build a team of curious “generalists.” I believe that to get through tough times, you need team members who are not only willing to roll up their sleeves to help others, but who also have a variety of skillsets to lend a team.This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hire any subject matter experts, but rather that you should consider building a team of people who can offer their skills to support other aspects of the organization if needed. For me, one of the most important attributes of a team member is curiosity: The strongest organizations are those made up of people who are not only fulfilling their defined role in the organization, but who are knowledgeable as well about some of the other roles and mindful of how they can be of assistance.
These concepts can help anyone build a stronger organization, but it’s important that all of us in the nonprofit sector also acknowledge that the pursuit of sustainability is fraught with contradictions and unreasonable expectation. How often have we been asked, “How will you make this program sustainable?”
This question is an important one, of course, but the idea of “sustainability” requires a redefinition for our context. Too often, the burden of reaching the pinnacle of self-sufficiency is put on nonprofits. Our work isn’t considered innovative if it doesn’t find a way to function without support from anyone. But every organization, in any sector, relies on support: government subsidies, tax incentives, public infrastructure, or other established sources of economic scaffolding. “Sustainability” must be redefined to take into account the fact that every organization needs some form of support from somewhere else, or someone else, in the ecosystem.
A nonprofit organization should be judged “sustainable” not when it no longer needs philanthropic support, but instead when it has built long-standing relationships with supporters and when those supporters (that is, funders) are fully committed to the mission. Foundations and governments cannot absolve themselves of their necessary and vital roles in the nonprofit sector. Sustainability should simply mean that they will be working alongside us, partners, as it were, sustaining the vision, staying the course.
Rudy Espinoza is the Executive Director of Inclusive Action for the City, a Community Development Financial Institution designing innovations to responsibly revitalize low-income, urban areas. He specializes in designing economic development initiatives in low-income communities, researching the informal economy, building private/nonprofit partnerships, and training the working poor to participate in the socio-economic revitalization of their neighborhoods. At Inclusive Action, he leads their advocacy efforts in support of the working poor and their micro-finance programs that support micro-entrepreneurs. Under his leadership, Inclusive Action helped legalize street vending in Los Angeles, has deployed over $500,000 in low-interest micro-loans to under-served entrepreneurs, and co-created a unique commercial real estate initiative that preserves small businesses in gentrifying neighborhoods.