How to Answer Grant Questions About Funding Sustainability

by | Feb 21, 2024 | Development/Fundraising, Grant Writing


If you’ve ever written a grant, you’ve likely encountered the dreaded “sustainability question.”

How will you sustain this work after the grant term?

Well-intentioned funders are looking to be sure the programs they invest in will continue after they write a check. But for grantees, funding sustainability questions can be torturous. Sometimes, what we really want to say is:

Our program would be sustainable if you and other funders committed to long-term, multi-year grants so we could stop spending our energy raising money year after year and instead focus on impact.

Of course, that’s not what funders want to hear. But before we delve into effective ways to answer the sustainability question, let’s look at why funding sustainability is such a big challenge.


Why Funders Ask About Your Funding Sustainability Plans

Research shows that the fundraising sustainability gap is a problem for nonprofits of every size. One major contributor is the limitations foundations and other donors have traditionally placed on overhead funding. According to a report from the Hewlett Foundation:

Studies have shown that nonprofits struggle to, at a minimum, recover their full operational and overhead costs, let alone invest in essential capacity strengthening — what is commonly referred to as the nonprofit “starvation cycle.”

In this context, it makes sense that funders are asking about sustainability. They already know it’s a sector-wide problem.


What Donors Are Looking for in Your Sustainability Plans

When funders ask the “sustainability question,” they are looking for assurances that you:

  • Have built the systems, expertise, and operating infrastructure to deliver on the project or program you’re proposing.
  • Have successfully executed projects or programs of similar size and scope in the past. If your organization hasn’t done this, you’ll need to explain why you think you can succeed now.
  • Are thinking about creating impact for the long-term so that dollars invested today will help build a program that continues to make a difference for years to come.
  • Have developed fundraising plans and the ability to execute on those plans.

When framed in these terms, answering the sustainability question gets a lot easier.


Sample Answers to Funding Sustainability Questions

Here are some potential ways to answer sustainability questions in grant applications.


Sustainability Answer #1

We have a long-standing commitment to the planning process, as reflected in our current strategic plan, which emphasizes sustainability and identifies the resources needed to continue our work in the future. A copy of our strategic plan is available upon request.


Sustainability Answer #2

We have a designated staff person responsible for raising these resources, and they have a successful ##-year track record of doing so. (Cite some indicator(s) of their success).


Sustainability Answer #3

As the leadership of our organization, our Board of Directors has an explicit and committed role as both fundraisers and donors, as stated in their description of responsibilities, which they all individually honor. Our Board of Directors Pledge is available upon request.


Sustainability Answer #4

We have a track record of successful fundraising events, appeal letters, personal donations, and other initiatives for cultivating resources. (Give examples here.)


Sustainability Answer #5

We have a successful track record of managing projects of similar scope. (Give examples here.)


Sustainability Answer #6

We have established relationships with other community partners, service providers, volunteers, funders, and other stakeholders who are committed to working with us to achieve our mutual missions through this project. (Give examples here.)


Sustainability Answer #7

We have an Operating Reserve that covers at least three months of operating expenses and a policy that governs how our reserves can and cannot be used. Our Operating Reserve policy is available upon request.


Sustainability Answer #8

Our grant writer and Board of Directors have received professional training from __________________ on how to cultivate sustainable funding and other resources using proven and replicable strategies.


Proactive Sustainability Planning

If you want to go one step further to invest in your nonprofit’s sustainability, your first step should be creating a 3-5-year strategic plan.

An effective nonprofit strategic planning process is designed to create a shared vision—informed by stakeholder feedback and grounded in consensus-building—and an actionable, multi-year strategy to achieve that vision, including funding the work.

Once you have a long-term impact and sustainability plan in your back pocket, answering the “sustainability question” on grant applications is no longer a hassle. Instead, it becomes an opportunity to show off your proactive planning.

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