What’s Your Sustainability IQ?

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Do you know your Sustainability IQ? How sustainable is your organization? Do you know where you have your greatest organizational strengths and assets? Are you aware of your risks, and how to minimize them? And, do you have a roadmap for building your sustainability?

Building sustainability is critical in today’s challenging fiscal, programmatic and public policy environment. This article will provide you with an overview of the key areas of sustainability, and how to develop a more sustainable organization. My firm has developed a Sustainability Profile, used in consulting and training, that identifies five key organizational areas to consider: (1) Mission, Programs, Planning & Evaluation; (2) Finance, Fund Raising & Marketing; (3) Human Resources; (4) System; and (5) Culture.

A. Mission, Programs, Planning & Evaluation. Most nonprofits and local governments excel here. You have developed programs and services that address needs and relate to the core mission. Sometimes, however, one finds “mission creep,” where programs are added that are not as related to the core mission. Has your organization added programs over the past years that were originally well funded, that are now not so well funded? And do these pull resources away from core mission programs? Do your programs make a difference, and how do you know? Can you demonstrate meaningful outcomes and impact? Are programs a model, or based on models and effective practices? Another area you may want to watch is planning. Although most organizations conduct a yearly strategic plan, fewer are able to actually implement the plan in such a way that is a living part of the work. There are strategies that can help make the planning come alive, such as incorporating goal reports into meetings, developing a plan template used for quarterly tracking, and celebrating benchmarks.

B. Finance, Fund Raising & Marketing. According to national research, a large percentage of nonprofits are still struggling with budget cuts and contracting challenges. So, this is an area of concern for many. Although the average organization’s budget has taken multiple hits, it is possible to reduce the risk: develop a conservative budget; identify ways to expand and diversify income; analyze cost overruns; create strategies and incentives for cost reduction; and involve staff in these efforts. Have you analyzed what works and what doesn’t with your fund development? Identify a few fund raising strategies that allow the organization to expand and diversify revenue. Nonprofits can often find ways to strengthen donor giving, with good database analysis. Board involvement in fund raising can bring in significantly more gifts, especially once this becomes a regular part of the board’s work. Build marketing in cost effective ways, and leverage your organization’s reputation using social media, traditional press, community outreach and meetings or events. Have financial policies and a financial plan in place to handle cutbacks; a fund raising plan and a marketing plan. These can be short, bulleted documents. However, having them will improve everyone’s ability to focus on priorities and stay focused. Staffing is often tight, so look for trusted volunteers and student interns to do some of the work.

C. Human Resources. In nonprofits and local government, the people are the primary asset. Review any budget to see that the largest percentage of revenue goes to staffing, which drives programs and services. Analyze board and other volunteer work to determine the value of volunteer time, and you’ll find that it’s substantial. Ensure that you have an HR plan and policies that cover staff, board and volunteers. Normally, these will be found in different documents, the HR policies, board by-laws and policies, and volunteer policies and procedures. Ensure that the CEO and Board Chair provide a model for board and staff. Make certain that people know what is expected of them, that they receive feedback, support and praise for work well done. Offer training and evaluation, and involve people in shaping plans that affect their work.

D. System. The agency’s infrastructure often lags in development and can be the first to fall to cutbacks. That can really put a drag on organizational effectiveness over time. When funds are tight, look for ways that staff and volunteers can become involved in evaluating and improving the organization’s system, administration, internal communications and technology. Look for retired managers and retired consultants who may provide targeted pro-bono services to help you keep your organization’s system and processes on track. Consider partnering with youth organizations to have young tech gurus work with you if you need a video, or a tech-specific project. Develop priorities for upgrades and changes, and look at the return on investment they will provide.

E. Culture. The Sustainability Profile has identified a number of elements that are an important part of a growing organization’s culture, and reflect that organization’s capacity. These are diversity, collaboration, innovation, and mindfulness. When an organization pays attention to these areas, investing organizational energy and resources, the organization builds its resiliency. It becomes more focused and effective; more proactive and responsive; better able to target and leverage resources; stronger and more able to weather challenge and change.

Build your Sustainability IQ, and your organization’s sustainability by taking the following steps:

  1. Analyze your organization’s strengths and weaknesses in each of the five key areas identified above.
  2. Target your greatest strengths, and outline strategies for leveraging those strengths.
  3. Identify your biggest weaknesses or risk areas, and build steps for developing those areas and minimizing risks.
  4. Implement your Sustainability Roadmap.

For more about your Sustainability IQ, including articles and an outline, consult our website.

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