What does sustainability really mean to a nonprofit?
We believe sustainability is an organization’s journey, not its destination. This is a different way of thinking about the term. For more than a decade we’ve worked with organizations on sustainability and we’ve learned that this way of thinking has value – and works.
We’ve developed a model, which is portrayed below, that captures our thinking and that nonprofit leaders can use to make strategic decisions about their organization’s sustainability.
The Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model
This diagram shows several factors related to organizational sustainability – all beginning with focus. Like lenses, each factor reflects certain aspects of sustainability. You can think about it this way:
Founding purpose and values are part of focus. In a sustainable nonprofit, they don’t change – they are absolute, almost sacred. Focus reflects the passion of the founders, defining both the core purpose and the core values that drive and motivate the whole organization. It’s the anchor for everything the organization does and answers the fundamental question, “Who are we?”
The other part of focus is flexible – it helps us stay relevant and answers the question, “Where are we going?” That direction is under consistent review. As the external environment changes, it must be adjusted so the organization continues to move in the right direction and has the greatest impact. Together, the founding purpose and values, along with a clear direction, provide a focus that is both true to the founders’ intent and relevant to today’s community.
Moving from focus, the next lenses also are constant in their underlying principles while remaining flexible as each adapts to current conditions. Organizations that use the lenses as a way to view their actions become more resilient and are able to:
- Focus on founding principles, making strategic decisions and looking ahead
- Recruit and retain the right board and staff and work together effectively as partners
- Seek and nurture strategic partnerships to maximize impact
- Assure sufficient unrestricted funds to take advantage of opportunities and handle emergencies
Using the lenses, you can begin to understand the dynamics of sustainability. Then, and only then, is it time to develop programs and services. That’s why they are presented at the other end of the diagram.
Programs and services are flexible – they are not sacred activities. One simple way to understand this is, “what you do is not who you are.” The strategic organization modifies programs and services, drops them, or adds new ones as it adjusts to the needs in its community – always influenced first by the factors of sustainability.
Want to learn more?
We have gathered our thoughts and experiences on sustainability into a book called Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey. Written by Foraker Founding President/CEO Dennis McMillian, the book is compact, easily digestible, and can serve as a guide for your nonprofit’s sustainability journey.
Click here to find out about the book and to order a copy.