Thoughts on Sustainability

Sustainability is a current buzzword. And an important concept for each of us to integrate into our work, our communities, and our personal lives. They are all connected, especially for those of us who work or volunteer in the nonprofit sector. Questions and concerns related to sustainability are often unasked and unanswered. How can we sustain our work in light of growing demand and contracting funds? How long can we continue to operate like this? And, on a personal note, how can I get through today?

The economic challenges of the past five years have pushed these questions to the forefront for many organizations and institutions. Some have closed their doors, others have cut services. Yet others are expanding, collaborating, investing and growing. Both are, in part, responses to the environment. Some are reactive and others proactive.

Our regular readers know we advocate for engaged, committed volunteer leadership and organizational integrity. These are key to sustainability or, more simply, organizational health. Here are some questions and ideas to consider in the area of sustainability.

Are our expectations of ourselves and our organizations reasonable? Are they in line with what is possible or do they push us beyond what we are capable of? When we face our limits – real or perceived – how do we respond?

What are the structures we as leaders put in place to sustain our institutions and our most important resources – our people. For example, are sabbaticals offered to staff at all levels after a set number of years of service? If not, is this possible? If not sabbaticals, how does the institution retain its talent? Are staff provided with opportunities to engage in professional development and networking? How is the executive leadership supported? Does the board partner with the executive in attracting resources, building relationships, and planning for the future?

How are new ideas vetted, accepted or rejected? What about succession planning? How are you cultivating the next generation of leadership? Most importantly, are your programs, advocacy and mission in sync with the current needs of the marketplace? For example, if your institution provides job training or employment preparation services, are these tied to specific needs of this region’s current employers? Valuable resources such as curriculum, teachers and instructors, and students’ time should be allocated most effectively with the end goal in mind – helping prepare residents secure living wage employment and perform well on the job.

Business processes such as payroll, purchasing, record maintenance and decision making should be evaluated. Are these in line with current best practices? Same with technology. Does your institution deploy technology (hardware and applications) that support business processes, data collection, reporting, evaluation and decision making?

We ask these questions not to stress you out, but to encourage you and other members of your leadership team to begin asking critical questions and making strategic investments that can help your organization sustain over time.


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