Sustainability: What is it and Why is it Important to Mission UpReach?

Sustainability: What is it and Why is it Important to Mission UpReach?

By Phil Waldron, CEO 


Do a search on Google for the definition of Sustainability and you will find a wide variety of definitions. Probably the most simple and direct definition that I found, that makes any sense is, “the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time.”


As a child my parents moved our family to Karachi, Pakistan in 1967. Since that time my parents worked in Pakistan, Australia, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Nepal, and India as missionaries both as resident, expats and short-term missionaries coming and going from a particular country for months at a time. This childhood experience of mine coupled with the experience that Donna and I have had with our own family as missionaries in México, for five years from 1998 to 2003 and then in Honduras for the past 15 years, has exposed me to many successful missions as well as many more that were not successful.


In this experience, I have seen and heard about too many missions and projects begun by well-meaning individuals and/or churches that begin with great enthusiasm but ultimately end when the original founders or missionaries return to the US after serving their time on the field. Data on nonprofits in the US, as reported by the National Center on Charitable Statistics, is that 30% of domestic nonprofits fail before their ten-year anniversary, due to lack of funding. Anecdotally, the experience that I have gleaned personally and vicariously through my parents’ missionary experience and many good friends that spent their lives on the foreign mission field, indicates that the failure rate of missions on the foreign field, both nonprofit and church missions, is much higher than the US domestic rate of failure.


This leads me to the point of this article this month and that is, “what is sustainability as it relates to Mission UpReach and why is it important?” To anyone that has been involved with Mission UpReach for any length of time it is clear that the mission of MUR will not be completed during Phil and Donna’s tenure as co-founders and leaders. Simply stated, the mission of MUR is, “to transform lives with the Gospel by educating, training and providing opportunities to the 1.7 million people that live in the Western Highlands of Honduras.”


For Donna and me, the MUR Board and the many, many supporters that have sacrificed to sustain our efforts over the last fifteen years, it is gratifying to look back and see all that God has done by directing our footsteps and flourishing the results. I will turn sixty-three this August and as we look forward to the coming years and the challenges that we face, it is clear that the mission is far from complete. We are only just now seeing the first generation of young people that have been impacted by our teaching and training become the leaders that will be required in the coming years.


Truth be told, the greatest threat to our future is the lack of financial resources. Over the past 15-years large donations have often come from older men and women who were in their golden years having sold businesses and felt the need to do good with the resources that God had blessed them with. Many of those friends and supporters have now gone on to their reward in Heaven. This fact alone illustrates a significant challenge of creating sustainability in the mission of MUR. Truth be told, the largest barrier to MUR achieving even more impressive results, than what we have already seen God bless us with, is the lack of resources. Personnel resources are critical to us accomplishing the mission, but personnel challenges can be met if we could only increase the amount and longevity of our incoming donations.


Since the 1960’s, when my parents moved our family to Pakistan, the dynamic of how churches go about doing missions has changed significantly. In today’s environment it is rare to find churches that are able to make more than a one-year commitment at a time. For Mission UpReach, this particular dynamic coupled with other factors such as the passing away of older friends and donors; has created an existential threat to MUR’s desire to fulfill our mission. Some years ago, MUR’s Board recognized the reality of the historical, life-cycle pattern of typical missions and nonprofits, i.e., they rarely survive the founders.


In an effort to steward the resources that God has blessed us with and with an eye on the future, knowing that to fulfill the mission, MUR needs to be focused on a multi-generational impact; the Board moved into the development of agricultural businesses on our Moses Project farm to create jobs for local people and to generate additional revenue to sustain the operations of our ministry programs. This decision has been one of the best decisions that the Board has made over the years and one of the most difficult things that we have ever done. We are years into the investment process of building our ag businesses and are only now just reaching a point where we can look forward and see that we are finally close to realizing our dream of generating significant additional income over and beyond what comes in as donations.


The old saying, “so close yet so far,” applies in our current situation though.


We aren’t there yet. And our donations aren’t sufficient to sustain all our ministries. The Board is taking all steps necessary to assure that we survive into the future and can thrive in our fulfillment of our mission.


We have dramatically reduced our workforce. We have taken painful and dramatic steps to temporarily shut down projects and ministries that do not have “earmarked funds” sustaining them. One of the most painful decisions that we had to take to move forward was to temporarily close our ESPERO school for deaf adults. This ministry is a good example to illustrate the challenges of funding mission programs. The school has been in operation for eight years. Each year, without having a single source of funding that could cover the operations cost, we operated on faith. I have talked with numerous churches about the possibility of them funding 50% of the annual operations cost without being able to successfully find a church that had the budget or interest in sponsoring this work. As a result, we have funded it out of our general, unrestricted funds. The time has now come that we just don’t have the availability of unrestricted funds to continue.


As you can imagine this was a very difficult decision. The deaf in our community are the most marginalized people that you could imagine. The life-transforming impact that this school has had on the lives on dozens of deaf adults is as inspiring as it is undeniable.


Several factors led to our Board’s decision to temporarily suspend school operations. The number one factor, and the one that ultimately mandated the closure, was the scarcity of available funds. The second factor was that our Staff failed to adequately recruit students for this academic school year. In their defense, the deaf adult community here is, in general, an emotionally immature community and subject to vacillating emotions, much like a pre-teen experiences a roller coaster of emotions. They just haven’t had the same emotional development that a hearing, educated person benefits from. One must remember that these adults usually come to us without any education and often without any formal sign training meaning that the manner that they communicate with family and friend is through gestures and charades versus a formal sign language. This lack of education seems to lead to an arrested emotional development and presents great challenges to our Staff as they teach them.


Please remember MUR in your prayers as we navigate these waters. Our Board is now benefiting from the advice and guidance of two, very experienced consultants that are helping us to formulate a Strategic Plan. This plan will identify a succession plan that will guide MUR over the next ten years as Donna and I move on to the next phase in life. It is also identifying the steps of a well-designed plan for creating sustainable revenue, that will not only fund our existing programs and ministries but, with God’s blessing and guidance, will fuel the growth of these ministries thus allowing us to scale up the number of people being impacted.


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