How to Sustain Good Work without Fundraising

“I’ve raised over $100 million without asking for money.”  When Paul Born dropped that little gem, it really refocused my wandering attention.  Paul is Co-Founder and President of Tamarack-An Institute for Community Engagement in Canada.  As I listened more closely, I would hear Paul confirm in his stories what my research over the past couple of years has been leading me to understand about the relationship between fundraising and project, even organizational, sustainability.

For the past three days I’ve been part of an extraordinary experience in Cincinnati, Ohio.  John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown of FSG and Paul Born and Liz Weaver of Tamarack, in collaboration with The Aspen Institute and the Strive Partnership, convened the first ever gathering of leaders of Collective Impact “backbone” organizations.  It was an invitation-only event and only about 70 people were expected.  Due to an East Coast snowstorm that snarled air travel fewer were actually able to attend.  I was surprised to find I was the only person in the room that did not actually lead a backbone organization.  Over the past several months, however, I’ve gotten acquainted with Fay Hanleybrown via phone and email and had discussed with her the work I’ve been doing on creating a sustainability framework anchored in the principles of Collective Impact.  These conversations, I believe, led to my invitation and I was honored to have been included.

The framework that I had been discussing with Fay over the past several months proposed that sustainability was achieved through a four-stage process that began with community engagement.  The process is quite simple and intuitive.  An organization or group engages a community on an important issue it is trying to address through information sharing and ongoing discussion, both personally and publicly in various media.  Through continuous, broad, and effective engagement, the organization or group becomes legitimized as the “go to” authority on the issue in the community as it becomes increasingly, positively associated with it.  As the engagement process continues to permeate the whole community and the group’s status as the “go to” authority increases, even those who were reluctant supporters, late adopters, or even resistors of change, become transformed into supporters, or at least, they don’t resist any longer.  This is the point at which the resources of a community, including funding, begin to open up to the initiative and a critical mass is achieved.  As this “tipping point” is reached, the desired change becomes the new norm for the community.  This ELTN (Engagement, Legitimization, Transformation, & Normalization) process achieves sustainability that fundraising alone cannot.  (For more information about the ELTN process email

There are at least two reasons this is true.  First, it creates community buy-in and, if the process also includes community participation in decision-making, it also creates community ownership.  In Cincinnati I learned a new expression that I like for how it so respectfully describes the community members that are closest to the issue being addressed:  “residents with lived experience.”  Rather than referring to the people most closely related to an important community issue as the “target population” or “victims” or “people at greatest risk” or some such, “residents with lived experience” evokes a sense of membership in the community and respect for the deep knowledge of the issue they bring to the discussion.  An effective ELTN process will include not just the powerful and influential stakeholders in a community but the whole community including “residents with lived experience” of the issue.  The powerful and influential, who often control the funding, may buy in as long as it seems a good investment.  However, once the whole community, including those residents with the lived experience, own the issue and the initiative that is addressing it, even lack of funding won’t take it away.

The second reason the ELTN process creates sustainability is because it creates a perception of value whether it is warranted or not.  I’m sure you’ve noticed how some things that aren’t effective, and may even be harmful, seem to never go away.  Let me give you a couple of examples in case you are coming up short at the moment.

Why are banks too big to fail even when they have some responsibility for a financial disaster?  Why does a prevention program that some feel may actually do more harm than good to children and youth continue to thrive?  Because they have a perception of value in the community that allows them to exist.

If banks that played a role in the financial meltdown can be sustained and youth prevention programs that don’t prevent anything can themselves become addictive to communities, surely organizations and initiatives that are genuinely doing good in a community should have no trouble, right?  Not exactly.  Many genuinely good organizations and causes continue to struggle for survival and seem to be light-years from actually thriving.  Why?  Because they’ve not really built the case for the value of their work in their community, that is, they’ve not achieved the perception of value.  They spend their time chasing money when if they spent their time creating and sharing value, the money would follow.

Community resources (including funding) follow community engagement.  This was the lesson that Paul Born taught this week in Cincinnati.  I’ve described it here with the ELTN process (which, by the way, can be measured and monitored for progress) but Paul explained how community engagement happens through community conversations.  I couldn’t do justice in this space to everything Paul taught us about the “how to’s” of community conversations.  However, you can get Paul Born’s book that explains it more fully – Community Conversations: Mobilizing Ideas, Skills, and Passion of Community Organizations, Governments, Businesses, and People.  The book is like Paul – insightful, relaxed, funny, approachable, and easy to understand.

More later…


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

3 thoughts on “How to Sustain Good Work without Fundraising”

  1. Thanks Tom – was great seeing you there. Also Strive was an important sponsor. Looking forward to more.

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