- Posted by EmpowerNonprofit
- On April 6, 2018
Last week I attended the inaugural Indianapolis Sustainability Summit, a sold-out event packed with enthusiastic attendees. Highlights included a rousing keynote speaker (retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby), breakout sessions covering a variety of green-focused topics and an appearance by Mayor Joe Hogsett offering the city’s official endorsement for the efforts. By the end of the day I was energized but couldn’t help but ponder two questions. What does “sustainability” really mean? And is nonprofit sustainability something we should seriously consider?
Sustainability means different things to different people. A widely accepted technical definition refers to operating in such a way that you meet your present needs without compromising the ability of people to meet similar needs in the future. Essentially, it means taking the long view as opposed to focusing on current day-to-day living
The cynic in me worries that many people use sustainability as a euphemism for environmentalism. Let’s face it, “environmentalist” has become a dirty word in some circles. But saying that you’re committed to sustainability makes you sound level-headed—even if you’re simply re-stating some of the same pro-environment principles in business-friendly and politically neutral language.
Furthermore, in nominally pro-environment circles, sustainability has devolved into buzzword status. It is one of those terms that gets thrown around by people and businesses trying to establish their green credentials without really thinking about what the term means.
Despite these negative considerations, the fact that the term sustainability gets wide use is a positive development. If people and businesses start considering the word’s true meaning and apply simple sustainability principles to their daily activities, our country will start using less energy, generating less waste and emitting fewer greenhouse gases. We might avoid some of the more dire impacts of climate change and hand off a livable, beautiful world to our kids and grandkids.
But what does this mean for nonprofits? As businesses, nonprofit organizations can participate in the sustainability movement by embracing green operational practices. Reducing paper and chemical use, recycling, encouraging employees to carpool, use transit or bike to work and reducing facility energy consumption are not only environmentally responsible strategies, they can cut operational costs.
Sustainability as a practice, though, can be taken to a completely different level in the nonprofit world. Organizations should begin assessing their programs and asking “Is this sustainable?” This question has nothing to do with the “green-ness” of a program. Instead, it’s a way of determining whether programs have been built for providing long-term impact and not just for satisfying some current need.
Consider asking the following questions: Is there a realistic potential for funding beyond the current fiscal year? Is necessary staff—particularly leadership—in place, fully trained and equipped to ensure quality service delivery over the long term? Are partners, whether they are providing referrals or services, likely to maintain their current levels of participation for as long as their support is needed?
Not surprisingly, sustainable funding vexes many nonprofits. Too many organizations are their own worst enemies, launching new initiatives on the shoulders of short-term grants or gifts without solid plans for future funding. “We’ll figure it out,” seems to be a common mindset. Yet this is an irresponsible attitude when serving clients who may need many years—or even a lifetime—of help.
Instead, nonprofits should build sustainability considerations into the launch or annual operating plans for all programs. Year 2 funding should be addressed at the beginning of Year 1. Staff training should be ongoing and succession plans developed. Communications with partners should be enhanced and partnership agreements frequently reviewed and updated.
Moving sustainability issues to the forefront might require a change in resource allocation and force some organizations into uncomfortable activities. But adding a long-term perspective to the normal day-to-day survival slog is a healthy change. Nonprofit sustainability efforts offer some benefits today but, more importantly, lay a foundation for continued success tomorrow.