Tiffany Applegate is co-founder of, which works to enhance the sustainability of nonprofit organizations. With her marketing degree and MBA, she left the corporate world for the nonprofit sphere, and has been consulting since 2005. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: On your website, you focus a lot on sustainability. I thought that sustainability was just a fancier word for fundraising, but clearly you mean something broader than that. Can you tell me about that?
TIFFANY: A lot of people do think that in order to be sustainable they just need money. But we’ve worked with and talked to a lot of organizations that may have an endowment or what they think is a large amount in cash reserves, but things happen and the funds runs out, and since they haven’t focused on sustainability they’re no longer able to survive. We’ve also seen many organizations that have a large government grant, and then when the administration changes, the focus of the grant program changes, so they lose their money and the organization is gone, because they haven’t focused on sustainability.
Ultimately sustainability is the ability of an organization to remain healthy, strong and adequately resourced until it accomplishes its mission. Obviously resources and fundraising are a key part of being sustainable, but there are certain elements you also have to have in place to attract and retain funding.
Sustainability is an intentional act, it’s not accidental. So there are different elements in a nonprofit organization that do enhance sustainability: community engagement; focusing on results and showing that you actually are making an impact; financial accountability and stewardship; board development; CEO or executive director development; and being strategic and intentional (strategic planning, in other words). All of those elements impact your ability to survive, and ultimately impact whether or not you can raise funds.
MKC: Is leadership the big determinant?
TIFFANY: In our minds, it is. In fact, it is one of the key determinants. When we consider organizational sustainability, we use a puzzle metaphor – there are many pieces to the sustainability puzzle. There are key pieces (or corner pieces) to the puzzle, and we do see leadership – that is, shared leadership between the executive director and the board – as one of those. Another key piece is the mission of the organization – being strategic and intentional and very mission focused. Another is awareness and communications – being intentional about communicating with supporters and engaging in the community. The last one is financial stewardship.
A lot of organizations will focus on one piece of the puzzle, like revenue development. Or they’ll bring someone in to focus on board development or marketing. But really, just like with a puzzle, the pieces affecting sustainability are interlocking, they all connect and they do impact one another. And just like when working a puzzle, it’s easier to complete if you can see the whole picture.
MKC: On your website, I notice you offer two different services, comprehensive sustainability planning and programmatic sustainability planning. What’s the difference?
TIFFANY: Comprehensive sustainability planning really looks at the ten elements, or ten principles. It is more comprehensive to the organization and looks at how to sustain the organization as a whole. But when many organizations first begin thinking about sustainability, they are most concerned with sustaining a program. Funders are asking how they are going to sustain this program in the long-run. When we look at program sustainability, we look at three dimensions: results, resources and relationships. Typically what we see is that the organization thinks it just needs to sustain a program but ultimately there is a need to sustain the whole organization.
MKC: How long have you been blogging?
TIFFANY: Our blog has been active a little over a year. We’ve been doing our newsletters since 2006.
MKC: What is it that you’re trying to do with the blog that you felt you couldn’t do with newsletters?
TIFFANY: Create interaction. We don’t want it to be a one-way conversation, and typically emails are. A blog and otherallow you to be more interactive with those you’re trying to serve.
We get a lot of subscribers and a lot of traffic through the blog, as far as people downloading resources and that type of thing. But the conversation isn’t as active as I would like it to be. There is more activity on social media sites than there is on the blog itself.
MKC: Have you tried Facebook?
TIFFANY: We have not done a lot, and we have not gotten much interaction on Facebook. We’ll get an occasional comment and a like, something along those lines. We’re looking right now on strategies to improve that.
MKC: What are the greatest challenges your clients are facing?
TIFFANY: Right now, in the face of this economy, a lot of organizations believe their greatest challenge is revenue development, and they’re focused on fundraising, but the lack of fundraising success is often the result of other issues. Such as, the community engagement – when times were good and money was coming in, they didn’t invest the necessary time and effort in developing their messaging. They didn’t spend the necessary time attracting supporters and advocates and building and supporting relationships, so they would have a base to get them through this time. They haven’t engaged their board in a way that strengthens the organization, or they haven’t developed a business plan that’s going to sustain the organization through times like this. A lot of organizations see revenue development as their biggest challenge, but I believe if these other pieces aren’t put in place, that issue of revenue development is not going to get any easier.
My hope and my belief is that this difficult time is an opportunity for organizations to become leaner and stronger and better at what they do, because they are going to put these key pieces in place. The money is harder to get right now, and it’s going to make organizations more competitive and stronger, and as a result, more people will be helped.
When organizations are fat and happy, they often aren’t asking questions like ‘is this the best way to do it?’ They’re content with the way they’ve always done it, without really looking at whether those programs are still making a difference in their communities. But when you do go through a recession, the thinking changes. The reality is that some organizations are cutting programs right now. They’re doing it because they have to, because they don’t have the money to sustain them all, so they’re trying to figure out which programs are even making a difference.
You can learn more about Tiffany and X Factor Consulting at her Twitter.or her , or connect with her directly through or
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.