How Donors Can Build Sustainable NGOs – 12 Tips

Erik Detiger About Erik Detiger

Erik Detiger is the Managing Director of FundsforNGOs. Erik brings his two decades of experience working in the field of international philanthropy and fundraising to FundsforNGOs. He has worked with the United Nations, INGOs and grass-roots organizations in Europe, Thailand, Nepal, Tanzania, India, and the United States. Well versed in project management and fundraising, Erik has led development projects in health, education, humanitarian relief and human rights, raising well over $150 million from a wide variety of government agencies, foundations, and institutions.


There is an oft-used saying that applies especially to the field of international development field: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Perhaps the only piece missing is that the man might also need a quality fishing rod! As a long-time program manager and fundraiser I have seen many donors interested in ‘teaching to fish’ but not as many willing to supply the tools, or the ‘quality fishing rod’.

In this guide we will focus not so much on the support to NGO programs (teaching how to fish) but on the tools needed to do so effectively and sustainably (the fishing rod). In short, how can we improve the basic tools of the NGO (cash, staff, training, equipment, housing, etc.)  to ensure sustainability and long-term impact?

Types of Sustainability

There are different ways in which development experts define sustainability. A fairly typical definition is that sustainability consists of three components:

1) Financial: Where the project continues to attract funding from other sources when the donor withdraws. E.g. the NGO successfully receives grants from one or more other donors.

2) Institutional sustainability: Where the NGO has the capacity to function and grow. The NGO has built structures that will allow impact to remain in place. E.g. they have the high-quality, trained staff and operational underpinning to excel.

3) Policy: Where the policy changes brought about by the project continue to exist when the donor withdraws. E.g. government legislation on child labor, which the NGO advocated for is adopted and implemented.

In this guide we will discuss ways in which donors can ensure that NGOs in the developing world will successfully meet the first two challenges: ensuring financial and institutional sustainability. Success in these two areas will support success on the programmatic and policy side. Donors that think long-term and spend time and resources to ensure that NGOs are continuously improving and building their capacity will have the best chance of accelerating long-term impact and survival. Those that do not will either shift the cost of doing so to other donors, or set the NGO on a path to failure.

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