Building a Sustainable Organization

A sustainable nonprofit organization is one that “…meets the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations.” – United Nation’s Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

This quote truly struck the chord of what is at the center of sustainability in any organization in that there is no compromising the future for short-term gains. 

Where do dues fit into the equation?– A sustainable organization cannot survive or even thrive on membership dues alone. In most organizations, dues make up a significant piece of the income pie. Percentages vary greatly from organization to organization but it is not uncommon to see at least 25% of a nonprofit’s income generated by membership dues.

A strategy employed by some nonprofit organizations is to specify that dues will not exceed income by a certain percentage. For example, specifying that no one source of income will be greater than X% will help to a) diversify income and b) reduce the overall risk to the organization.

Do you have tiered membership options? – As well all know, our members and non-members, buy memberships and other services from our organizations and their needs are very different from member to member. If we price membership at one level, the expectation is that everything is included in the membership fee. Also, if we don’t have varying levels of membership dues, we are potentially missing other members that may a) want to pay less and get less or b) want to pay more and get more. Here are three potential options where you can review your programs and services and assign which level gets what level of service. Use this in combination with a list of services:

  • Level I (basic, free) –Basic level access; low membership fee or free
  • Level II (intermediate) –Basic level plus additional benefits
  • Level III (high) –Basic + intermediate with extra benefits

Once you have established a set of tiers, then assigning benefits to tiers is then the next task. Even if Level I is a basic/free membership, the strategy at this level may be to increase market share and to also increase potential consumption of other programs and services. The key is to provide enough commensurate value at every level to keep retention levels high.

We have tiers, but what are other potential sources of income?– There are too many to list here but as we work with nonprofits, the following are eight common ones.

  1. Website Generated Revenue (ads, listing, marketplaces, etc.)
  2. Conferences/Fundraisers & Events
  3. Sponsorships and Exhibits
  4. Certification Programs
  5. Donations
  6. Advertising
  7. Product Sales
  8. Grants

In reviewing the American Society of Association Executives’ Operating Ratios Report (2012 report), they identified these top five non-dues revenue streams.

  1. Meeting/Convention Registration Fees
  2. Exhibit/Tradeshow Booth Fees
  3. Certification/Accreditation/Contributions/Grants/Contracts
  4. Meeting Sponsorship Revenue
  5. Educational Program Fees

Before developing any revenue streams, it is important to conduct a member value study that asks members what they value the most around the programs and services in your organization. Most importantly, ask the question, “what keeps you up at night as it relates to your profession or business?” This question is a veritable “goldmine” for any organization as it helps to identify areas of great need. The worst question to ask is, “what do you need from our organization?” In this question, we are asking the member to come up with a solution to a problem. In many cases, the response will be either left blank or will be something the organization already offers as most members don’t know what they need (i.e. think of the first iPhone as an unidentified need that everyone needed). The first question touches upon the pain points of a member that is easier to describe and for your organization to assess and determine a solution if it is widespread. A methodical approach is required as it has to appeal to a large number of members in order for resources to be expended (human and financial).

What is the nonprofit organization’s value proposition?– The question that we should always be ready to answer is, “why should I join your organization?” If we cannot answer it succinctly, then there is a need to examine the overall value proposition. Also, determine if one member type’s value proposition is different from another members’ value proposition. This is an excellent question to ask in a member value study.

What is the step-by-step processing in building a sustainability plan for my organization?– I have included the beginnings of a Sustainability Plan that can be modified/expanded for your organization.

Sustainability Plan Outline


  • Conduct member value survey
    • What is valuable; identify the “value proposition”
    • What is needed ANDthey will pay extra for
    • What is not needed
    • Identify the key “pain points”
  • Review programs
    • Identify level of effort vs. benefit to members
    • Eliminate programs that are not identified as valuable
    • Put more resources in programs that are valuable to members to make them even more valuable
  • Create your strategic plan
    • Use the member value study to guide priorities
    • Identify mission, goals, strategies and performance measures
  • Create your budget
    • Understand current income
    • Identify additional money needed to create new programs
    • Consider raising dues; implement tiered dues options
    • Secure funding that fits the mission
    • Consider charging extra for newhigh value programs
  • Monitor performance
    • Add KPI’s or targets to achieve for each program
      • Income
      • Member Satisfaction
      • Utilization
      • Others
  • Promote your organization
    • Through influential members
    • Through partnerships with other organizations
    • Through Website and Social Media; deliberate and interactive

Going back to the beginning of this article, sustainability “…meets the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations.” Sustainability is more than a word but a way of life for nonprofit organizations. Deliberately evolving high impact services and creating new ones is the essence of success. Creating a sustainability plan, that lives within your strategic plan, is the only way to provide sustainable value to your members. If your organization thrives, so do your members.What does sustainability look like in your organization and how well-positioned is it to provide maximum value and relevance to all of your constituencies?