“Sustainability” has been a buzzword in the social sector for the past few years, but what does it really mean? Everyone agrees that sustainability is an important factor to evaluate the resiliency of social sector organizations, but few have agreed on a simple formula for nonprofits to reach it. Last week, we presented our straightforward, yet meaningful formula for sustainability – which we use during our strategic planning sessions – to grantees at the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky. Over the course of the day, we discussed elements of the formula and allowed for group break-outs to develop a sustainability plan. The response was enthusiastic, so we wanted to share the formula with you today. At its essence, the formula states that sustainability = high-impact organizations + high-performance organizations. To drill down more deeply into each of these concepts, we have also included links in this post.

First, as we have emphasized in previous blog topics, in the 21st century, social sector organizations must be concerned about their impact on their stakeholders and the larger community. Clearly, impact is a crucial step for any organization’s long-term sustainability. High-impact organizations encourage staff to consistently challenge their work and find new and better ways to serve their stakeholders. To increase your organization’s impact, you can start with our model of turning a problem into a sustainable solution through our social alchemy model. Then, once you have defined the best solution, develop a theory of change and logic model. Then, build toward a more sophisticated evaluation plan which will measure your outputs, outcomes and, ultimately, your organization’s impact.

Second, once you have a model that has impact, how do you tell your story? We encourage organizations to follow time-tested principles of storytelling. Remember to focus on your “why” before you focus on your “who” and “how” to draw people into your story. Also, if you plan to tell your story, make sure it gets results using best practices from Made to Stick.

Finally, in order to have the greatest impact, social sector organizations must be high-performance organizations – well-run organizations that allocate resources to their most efficient use. High-performance organizations consider themselves learning organizations. They employ a clear and meaningful strategic planning process, diversify their funding sources and effectively resource key support functions, such as human resources, IT, marketing/communications and financial management. To increase your organization’s performance, you can start small by evaluating support functions each year (by their importance and satisfaction within your organization) and plotting the results on a 2×2 matrix. Strive for high satisfaction in the most important support functions, including measurable improvement for all support functions over time.

As an added benefit, when social sector organizations work toward being high-impact as well as high-performance, they are not only more sustainable, but they also create a culture that attracts better talent for staff and board positions, achieves greater recognition for their work and leads to the organization becoming the “employer of choice” within the community.

Taken together, all these elements create a reinforcing loop where the organization becomes stronger over time and creates more impact in the community. To us, this is what sustainability is all about. Tell us how you define sustainability and how you measure it within your organization. Tune in next week when we cover Ruby Payne’s seminal work, Bridges Out of Poverty, and how it can be used in social sector organizations.

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