The Pathway to a Financially Sustainable Organization


The students of my chapter, the EWB-USA Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) Chapter, talk a lot about the sustainability of our projects. Sustainability means different things for each project type, and we focus on structural projects – vehicular bridges, footbridges, schoolhouses. We go over and over design alternatives that will make the structure as robust as possible given all the limitations, and we think about who will have the resources and motivation to do basic maintenance, to do occasional minor repairs, and even to do major repairs if they are needed.

We talk about the sustainability of our program as well. By banding together with other chapters working as a cluster in Joyabaj, Guatemala, we’ve been able to collaborate with regional government to make sure our project priorities are complementary with theirs. We’ve also been able to develop a pool of reliable suppliers, foremen, and community organizers. As a cluster of programs, we have a continuous presence in the region that a single chapter’s program couldn’t maintain.

The EWB-USA Financial Sustainability Committee, formed in February 2016, is charged with addressing a few broad questions: are the organization’s core programs – the International Community Programs, Community Engineering Corps, and Engineering Service Corps – sustainable? Does the financial model that matches revenue and costs make sense, and does it create the best conditions for EWB-USA to experience continued growth and to have a greater impact?

The students members of the EWB-USA MSOE Chapter share the same constraints as those at many other university chapters: they are pressed by jobs, schoolwork, sports and other demands, yet somehow they find the time and energy to do really terrific work on our EWB-USA projects. They worry about how they’re going to raise travel funds and project funds, but most of them don’t have time to worry about EWB-USA’s finances.

My motivation for leading the Financial Sustainability Committee (FSC) is to make sure we are keeping the organization’s financial house in order. If future students are to have transformative experiences with EWB-USA, and if we are to continue to help our community partners make meaningful improvements in their infrastructure, then EWB-USA itself has to remain financially strong so it can adapt and grow with us.

With all that in mind, the FSC met every other week from February through August of this year. We worked on understanding the costs incurred by EWB-USA’s central organization and the revenue that supports those costs. We developed an approach to attributing all of the costs to EWB-USA’s three core programs, and we then considered imbalances in cost and revenue. We brought some ideas to the EWB-USA Board of Directors, refined them into a draft proposal, and took the proposal on the road to this fall’s five EWB-USA Regional Conferences. You can read our Executive Summary and view our Regional Conference presentation here in Volunteer Village.

We want to hear from you!

We’re collecting feedback from EWB-USA members via this survey through December 15, and we plan to deliver formal recommendations to the Board of Directors in January 2017.


About the Author
Doug Stahl
As Professor of Civil and Architectural Engineering at Milwaukee School of Engineering, Doug Stahl teaches undergrad and graduate courses in structural engineering. He has advised MSOE’s chapter since its founding in 2005, and has guided the students through numerous bridge and schoolhouse projects in Guatemala. Since 2012, he has co-coordinated the cluster of EWB-USA chapters working in the Joyabaj region of Guatemala, ensuring that the chapters’ efforts are consistent with regional priorities. The work of this cluster contributed to the founding of EWB-USA’s Guatemala office in 2016.