Sustainability Defined

Sustainability is a popular word with a variety of definitions.  One common definition is the preservation of natural capital.  Another is to avoid doing harm.  Another suggests that it is the ability to sustain activity indefinitely.  All of them seem to focus on the avoidance of a negative impact.  While that is good, it is insufficient.

Mission Enablers prefer to think that sustainability means taking action today that will ensure the future is better for everyone, even for future generations.

If a nonprofit focuses on sustaining its current level of activity, there will be insufficient capacity to serve those in need tomorrow as the population grows.  Therefore, sustainability demands that every nonprofit increase its capacity to serve.

As long as the population grows, there will be a growing demand for everything.  However, there is a finite supply of everything.  In other words everything will cost more in the future; everything will be less affordable to those who need it most.  Sustainability means enabling clients to be self-sustaining.

Strategic resources are the ones that determine whether an entity can survive.  Oxygen is a strategic resource for most living things.  Donors, money, clients, staff, and community support are examples common to most nonprofits.

What are the other strategic resources your nonprofit’s future depends on?

Each of your nonprofit’s strategic resources must be constantly increasing.  Prudence suggests that you must have reserves of each.  Therefore, the resources must grow faster than the demand.  Tracking the growing demand is necessary because change is never smooth or predictable.  Sustainability means having sufficient reserves to meet more than the near-term demands.

Each resource needs its own plan.  The plan must either lay out the steps to increase the availability of the resource or reduce the need for the resource.  Since every resource is finite, it is necessary to reduce the dependence over time.  However, the abundance of some resources is high, reducing the demand for those resources can be postponed.  Another part of the plan must be the effective use of the current resources until an abundant substitute can be found.  Sustainability means having a variety of resource plans.

Tracking donor loyalty, growth, and generosity is one example.  The rate of growth of new donors must exceed the rate of growth of the budget or inflation plus population growth whichever is higher.  Donor retention must be constantly improving.  The unnecessary loss of a donor is wasteful.

Next Step:

Define your nonprofit’s strategic resources

Create a plan for each of your strategic resources

Track resource availability and your nonprofit’s changing needs

Ensure that your resource reserves are growing at the same rate as your demand for each of those resources

The promise of your mission statement ensures that each of your clients will experience an increase in their sustainability by completing your program.  Your nonprofit should have the same level of sustainability as your clients hope to achieve.

Take It Further:

Ask your board to make the sustainability of your nonprofit a priority

Collaborate with other nonprofits, government agencies, and for-profits that need the same resources as your nonprofit (ensuring there is a collaborative effort to provide everyone with the necessary resources)


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