Insights, News

Secrets to Sustainability: Best Practices from the GreenLight Portfolio Convening

Jul 5, 2017



There’s one topic that keeps all nonprofit leaders up at night: sustainability. How can we sustain our current staffing structure? How can we sustain our funding base? How can we reach financial sustainability in a new site? How can we sustain our impact given our community’s changing dynamics and needs?

At GreenLight, we are obsessed with sustainability. Our model is based on importing innovative, best-of nonprofits into our local communities – but we don’t want our portfolio organizations to only succeed in our communities for the four years we fund them. We work with them to create sustainable practices to ensure their staffing, financial model, and community engagement solidify them in our communities for the long run. Each year, we convene our portfolio organizations to learn from outside experts and one another on how to grow and sustain their work. This year, we invited all 17 of our portfolio organizations to join the convening, with the goal of sharing ideas and best practices and sparking ideas for growth that could create ripples of impact throughout our portfolio. For this year’s convening, our focus was on sustainability – with topics ranging from staffing to financial models to community impact. Here are just some of the best practices for sustainability surfaced from the convening:

  • Funding – to cultivate a financial model that allows for innovation and sustainable programing, nonprofits should invest in development staff and diversify their funding streams. Organizations that solely rely on public sector or philanthropic dollars are taking on larger risk than those that have multiple streams of funding.
  • Staffing – in order to prevent staff burnout and turnover, nonprofits need to invest in their people. It is much more cost effective to invest in benefits, professional development, and growth opportunities than to be in a constant hiring state.
  • Impact – achieving long-term impact often requires some flexibility in programming. One way to ensure your theory of change is achieving the impact you desire is to engage your beneficiaries in feedback. Collecting information on how your beneficiaries interact with and benefit from your organization, as well as how they think it could be improved, and acting on that information, is vital to ensuring your impact is meaningful and community-oriented.
  • Evaluation – often, completing a third-party evaluation can feel like a conclusion to a long journey. However, it’s just the beginning. Creating a communications plan, both internal and external-focused, around your evaluation results can ensure that results are interpreted in the correct context. Results should be considered in a learning mindset – they are something to consider carefully and act upon in order to improve your model.
  • Growth – for a growing nonprofit, understanding the healthy tension between local and national sites is vital. Often, local staff and national staff have the same concerns – funding, relationships, and communication to name a few. It is critical to think through how specifically a national office supports its local sites, and how local sites can have a seat at the table when organization-wide decisions are being made. Growth may never feel 100% comfortable for everyone in an organization, but developing and acknowledging this healthy tension can ease growing pains.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all secret to sustainability. But engaging your organization in these conversations, and reaching out to like-minded organizations that may be grappling with the same issues, can be helpful in determining what your unique model needs to be successful long-term.

GreenLight Fund’s National Portfolio


Special thanks to our portfolio convening presenters and facilitators: Chuck Gordon of New Kensington Group, Melinda Tuan of Fund for Shared Insight with Peter Katz of Genesys Works and Christine Kidd of Center for Employment Opportunities, Brian Joseph of RevJen, Cathy Burack, Alan Melchoir, Larry Bailis of Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis University, Sue Bonaiuto of Single Stop, and Teresa Power of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.