Hardly a day passes without hearing something somewhere about sustainability. You may overhear conversations on the television or radio, especially on the news channels and talk radio. You may hear them in the coffee shops, or more likely you see the results of sustainability conversations in the products and packaging used to sell and enjoy your beverage of choice.
Another indication of how much the topic of sustainability has grown is found on Google. In January 2008, a Google search of the word sustainability yielded 14,100,000 results; now in March 2010 the results for that same search have more than doubled with 29,400,000 results. Depending on the circles you are in, the conversations take a different tone and may often have different meanings. Sustainability is one of those topics that has multiple meetings and two or more people can engage in a discussion using the same term, but be talking radically different things.
However most of the sustainability talk in the mainstream media is focused on sustaining the environment -- which is indeed an important topic, but not the direct focus of our work. Yet the word (and concept) is rapidly becoming commonplace in many nonprofit circles, and often in those conversations the issues are focused on sustaining programs, services, and even organizations. This may lead some to believe sustainability is code for money and fundraising.
Nonprofit sustainability is an extremely important topic for conversation and I suspect you’ve been involved in some discussions on the subject. Let me offer two definitions we use when training on nonprofit sustainability:
The ability of an organization to develop strategies for continued growth and development that provide long-term impact of individuals and communities
- Foundational elements that allow an organization to survive the tests of time and be resilient when confronted with various challenges.
As you can see from these definitions funding is an important element to the discussions, but it is certainly not the only part. Sustainability involves all aspects of your organization and it’s beneficial to get everyone thinking and talking about it in and beyond your organization. Sustainability is a long-term community effort and the conversations should involve as many people as possible, including other nonprofit leaders and professionals. So who should you include in the sustainability discussions and how do you start?
Let’s begin by reviewing the rules of conversation.
- A conversation is the informal exchange of thoughts, ideas, or information by spoken (and increasingly written) words.
- Conversation is also defined as oral, written, or online communication between people. By definition then, conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. I am troubled that some of the sustainability conversations have been monologues in which funders ask providers to share their sustainability plans for maintaining services after the initial funding has ended. But in some cases, the funders have not engaged providers in conversations of what sustainability would look like or helped identify tools and resources to help get there. They simply ask that you just tell us them plan and they’ll let you know if meets their expectations. That’s not a conversation and that’s not helping advance an understanding of what it takes to sustain programs and organizations.
The discussions I am suggesting include engaging many interested parties and sharing thoughts, ideas, strategies, and plans. This would include sharing successes and failures and how we can learn from one another in our local communities, as well as our broader professional communities.
Here’s a short list of the conversations you could consider:
- Board and staff members - Start by asking each other what they think nonprofit sustainability means and how it impacts your organization.
- Leaders of other nonprofit organizations in your community - Learn how they are addressing their sustainability concerns, what types of plans they have developed, and their experiences with the implementation plan.
- Funders (of all kinds) - Inquire if they have gained any insights or discovered best or promising practices.
- Civic, social, governmental, and religious leaders in your community - Discover their perception of the impact of your programs and services and how vital you are to the social fabric.
- Clients (current and alumni) - Learn the void that might exist in your community if your organization disappeared.
After you have some comfort level and proficiency on the topic and its impact to your organization, community, and clients, invite funders to join the dialogue and begin to develop common goals and language for the discussions.
I also invite you to engage in some rich and robust online discussion with a broad community of peers through online groups like LinkedIn and Facebook. Here are a few benefits of online discussions:
- Access to brilliant nonprofit leaders and thinkers from across the US and around the world willing to share their wisdom and experience.
- A wide array of passionate professionals struggling with similar issues sharing what worked (or didn’t) for them
- A safe place to ask questions and obtain feedback
- A resource network at your fingertips from your office, home, or favorite coffee shop.
We’ve just launched Nonprofit Sustainability Strategies, a new LInkedIN Group dedicated to sharing ideas and resources on nonprofit sustainability. We’d love for you to join us there to ask your questions and share your ideas, resources, wisdom, and experience as you seek to enhance your sustainability. Click here to visit the group and join our conversations on LinkedIn.
Sustainability is a critical topic, one that cannot be ignored without compromising the future of the organization as well as the clients and communities you serve. Take steps today to join the conversation and exchange of ideas.
Kevin Monroe is the Founder
and Managing Partner of X Factor Consulting, a consulting firm that
makes the world a better place by equipping leaders and strengthening
organizations. Through active partnerships with businesses,
foundations, government agencies, nonprofits, and others that share
this commitment, X Factor is strengthening individuals, families,
neighborhoods, and communities around the world.
has a wealth of experience and a passion for nonprofit and
philanthropic organizations, as evident in the results he has achieved
working with organizations around the country. He is available to
or speak on this topic and many more. Contact us today or click here to learn more.
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