The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

Who Says Sustainability is Boring?

Sustainability is a top priority for nonprofit executives and boards everywhere. Long-term financial viability is, of course, the main job of the executive director and board: without the ability to survive, the organization has no future. And, as Bell, Masaoka and Zimmerman make clear in their book titled Nonprofit Sustainability (put it at the top of your list if you have not already read it!) sustainability is truly about the intersection of financial resource allocation and impact: in other words, are you allotting your resources effectively to drive mission impact?

When nonprofit leaders mention their need to focus on sustainability, I imagine my cat when I offer him the remaining half can of wet food that’s been in the fridge overnight – he’ll eat it if it’s all I’ve got, but he’s certainly not excited about it and delays eating it until he realizes he absolutely has no other choice. Honestly, I can’t blame him. But I do have a different take on the issue of sustainability.

In my opinion, sustainability is exciting! Yep. I called sustainability “exciting.” It’s time for sustainability to get turned on its head and be heralded for the creative, strategic mindset that it is.

Sure, if you take the definition of sustainability from Wikipedia you paint a pretty bland picture: “Sustainability: the capacity to endure. (Wikipedia)” However, the concept of sustainability is much more exhilarating when you take a page from Kate Barr and define sustainability as, “Fresh, Vital, Relevant and Healthy!” (Kate Barr, Nonprofits Assistance Fund)

When we think about ensuring our organization is as energized, maximizing resources, strategically focused, brimming with talent, and, ultimately, transforming our communities it’s a much more exciting viewpoint: it also requires us to do more than just plod along, barely meeting our revenue goals, doing things the way we always have, and failing to develop our people because we don’t have the time or money.

Leading a sustainable, “fresh, vital, relevant, and healthy” organization requires the same degree of the passion we have for our missions. It also requires us to ask tough questions, think about things from different perspectives, problem solve creatively, make bold choices and strategic decisions, and act with clarity and intention.

That, to me, sounds exciting! It is far more engaging than just figuring out how to maintain our current state and keep placing Band-Aids on our issues.

So what does approaching sustainability in this new vein look like? It means:

  • Hitting the pause button. Set aside time to get out of your day-to-day and think strategically and for the long-term.
  • Being candid. This is the time to get vulnerable and engage your board in some real conversations.  Presumably, they’re on your board because they have value to add.  Call on that brain power as well as the bright minds that work on your team.
  • Bringing thought power to the table. This is the time to get vulnerable and engage your board in some real conversations. Presumably, they’re on your board because they have value to add. Call on that brain power as well as the bright minds that work on your team.
  • Taking a fresh look at everything. Everything. Nothing in your organization should go unassessed: from your programs to your fundraising and marketing activities to your culture and talent. What’s working and where do you need to make adjustments? How can you grow the ROI on the investment of time, energy and money you make in all those areas?
  • Problem solving creatively. Again, with the thought partnership of your team and board, think about how to fix issues for the long-term by approaching them differently. Stop using Band-Aids: you’ll just wind up back in the same place.
  • Making bold, strategic decisions. You can’t just do more with less. Where will you get the most return for your time, energy, and money? What will you carve off and stop doing so you focus on the things that drive impact and achieve your goals?

Sustainability is not about just raising more money. And it’s certainly not about just surviving. If it was simply about plodding along to be around next year, why are you working so hard?

Pause. Gather your think tank. Get real about where you are. Imagine where you want to be. And get creative and bold about how you’re going to make it happen. See, isn’t that way better than the cold wet food???