Funders use the concept of sustainability as a key element in deciding what and how to fund. It is applied as a kind of diagnostic, in which the patient has little say, while changes in communities and how charities work with and within them can be overlooked.
The term carries many assumptions: that organisational survival is always “a good thing”; that organisational strength should be defined by balance sheets; that business models provide suitable analogues; and that fragility and transience are fixable “deficits” regardless of context and size.
Foundation funding can provide a lifeline and make a lasting difference. But the hoops and strings associated with funding continue to make the experience, for many, difficult and unsettling. And expectations around ‘sustainability’ are often central to those difficulties.
‘A complicated mix of surviving cuts and finding new funders or sources of income.’
The work of charities is the hardest thing to judge in terms of its quality and effectiveness: inevitably, much has to be taken on trust. However, the work is what ultimately matters, and funders need to ensure that their judgements and decisions give primacy to it.
The real essence of ‘sustainability’ for charities is about covering core costs so that the management and back office can be maintained as the engine room of the organisation, and not become ever more over-stretched.
‘The old model – of funding work so that it can prove its value and be mainstreamed into public funding – is, if not obsolete, increasingly irrelevant.’
‘We are highly sceptical about the promotion of sustainability as a term which inherently privileges organisational strength and survival, when the focus really needs to be on the work.’
‘There is some sense that applicants are adopting the language of sustainability because they have made a judgement that, during uncertain times, funders are more preoccupied about the state of health of an organisation and therefore there is a greater need to reflect the preoccupation of funders.’
‘In a fast-changing environment where funding can grow and recede with little warning, organisations may need to wane as well as wax, or merge or close rather than limp along ineffectively. We have to take risks if we are really going to be a funder that takes account of context and wants to try and do something about tricky issues.’
If the organisation is what needs to be sustained, then longer-term unrestricted funding is likely to be the right answer.
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