Let’s Put An End To The #SustainabilityMyth

There are plenty of reasons to love Vu Le’s Nonprofit with Balls blog and one of the most compelling is his ability to speak the pain truth and help adjust perspective away from the cascade of chatter that floods our field; so much so, it ends up hijacking strategic thinking. Case in point, in Le’s post from 5/18/15, he cries foul on some of the prevailing sentiments purported by Foundations and large donors on the topic of sustainability.

Adaptistration People 064In a nutshell, Le reminds his readers that ultimately, the quality of whatever your nonprofit produces (service, experience, etc.) is what defines your patron relationships.

When Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance got together in 2013 and wrote a letter denouncing the Overhead Myth, I was ecstatic. The Overhead Myth is one of the dumbest and most damaging concepts ever inflicted on nonprofits and the communities we serve. Imagine if we go on Yelp to find help deciding which restaurants to frequent, and all the reviews are like this:

“We were disgusted that the Happy Chicken spends over 30 percent of their revenues on rent, water, insurance, and accounting software. Go a block down the street and eat at the Flying Lemur instead; the owner assures me she only spends 10 percent on things like electricity.” 

That’s what the Overhead Myth is like, and since it is down, we all need to kick it so that it never gets back up to terrorize us again. There is still a lot of people in society we need to educate regarding this issue.

Yes. Yes we do need to kick it. I suggest changing into something with steel tipped toes before doing so.

Le continues by recommending nonprofits adopt a proactive position to help end what he defines as the #SustainabilityMyth.

The quest for this elusive thing called “sustainability” has become as damaging as the obsession with “overhead.” It divests funders from their role as equal partners, and forces nonprofits to waste time justifying our work instead of actually doing it. It leads to small one-year grants and grants “no more than 10% of your org budget” or something, all of which just turn nonprofits into exhausted hummingbirds who spend much of our time and energy flitting from funder to funder.

He concludes by offering specific suggestions for nonprofits, donors, and funders; all of which are entirely applicable to the nonprofit performing arts field. I would even recommend that board and administrative executives go an additional step by focusing efforts toward service organizations that may be either complicit or active supporters of the #SustainabilityMyth.

And since the League of American Orchestras conference is coming up next week, it is the ideal setting for these executives to introduce the discussion within the closed door confines of constituency meetings.

If your organization is sending any executives and/or board members, don’t be shy about reaching out to ask if there are any plans to advocate ending the #SustainabilityMyth.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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1 thought on “Let’s Put An End To The #SustainabilityMyth”

  1. Overhead is underfoot! Figures of speech receive the knockout punch! For a second I worried sustainability might go a round with a heavyweight puncher– relieved to find the discussion merely addressed financial viability of non-profit art organizations. Sustainability in this economic climate should be headlines everywhere! Although it’s not about those potential headlines, this is a good read.

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