What is a Sustainable Organization?

If you follow my blog then you know that I am in the process of writing my dissertation. Dissertating, as many doctoral candidates affectionately describe it, can be a tedious process with frustration, heartache, blood, sweat, and tears. Luckily for me, I am only experiencing some of those characteristics.

For the past month I have been trying to identify the critical domains of sustainability within nonprofit organizations that ensure continued operations amid a host of challenges. Upon swimming through the literature I have made a bit of headway in determining a few. I’m sure there are more but this is what I have so far:
-Financial sustainability- i.e. marketing, grant funding, social enterprise, fundraising (basically a diversified funding base)
-Programmatic sustainability- i.e. enacting successful programs that demonstrate quality and other factors requisite for continued funding.
-Strategic Partnerships- collaborations, mergers, and partnerships in a myriad of styles
-Leadership- strategy (this is almost a catch all) includes being innovative, effective governance, accountability, and transparency.

Now let me back up a little bit to define what I mean by sustainability, or a Sustainable Organization. I define sustainable organizations as those that are able to use their capacity for continued operations, programs, and generally keeping their doors open. Parts of the academic literature see this as survivability, but I think sustainability is more than survivability. Survivability to me conjures images of scraping by or trying anything possible to maintain, which can have adverse effects. I actually like the United Nations definition of sustainability as well. “Doing what is required to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I think that this definition, however, lacks the necessary preparations for long-term sustainability. I see this definition as scraping by in the present, which often happens among many nonprofit organizations that don’t have the necessary capacity.

The The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (Essential Texts for Nonprofit and Public Leadership and Management)
discusses the idea of the Sustainability chasm as the inability to adapt successfully to market pressures through technology, professional marketing, corporate partnerships, sophisticated fundraising, and complex government programs. I think this chasm exist not only because of the lack of sustainability planning, but because of a general lack of capacity. Capacity building has been identified as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, abilities, processes, & resources that an organization & communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast changing world. This sounds very similar to sustainability, doesn’t it?

The way I see it, capacity building happens in concert with sustainability planning. I say in concert because I think both of these ideas are a circular process. I would generally start with capacity building, but keep in mind the focus on sustainable practices/approaches. Once sustainability is thought to have been achieved, then begin thinking about another area to work on. But don’t forget that just because something is “Sustainable” means that you can forget about it. NO! You must continue to nourish it and work on the capacity side of it so that any environmental or market pressures do not force it to collapse or become useless. That is unless of course it needs to be let go, because sometimes programs may or should come to an end.

Okay, now that there is a clear picture of what I mean (or maybe now it’s about as clear as mud), how does this relate to technology and specifically social media? Several social media strategists (actually probably hundreds) will talk about many ideas like ROI, metrics, and cultivating relationships, which is all good, true, and desperately needed in the nonprofit sector. BUT I want to step back a minute and evaluate what I am calling “Readiness.” Well, I call it readiness right now, but there might be a better term for it, and feel free to comment with your idea 🙂

What do I mean by Readiness? Social media is still relatively new, and increasing numbers of nonprofit, for profit, and public organizations are beginning to adopt its use with out really knowing what it’s all about. Reasons include fear of being left behind, the potential to leverage networks and increase funding, volunteers, etc. etc…. However, I wonder whether these organizations are thinking critically about their adoption of social media? How to sustain a social media strategy? Whether they have the capacity to support a strategy? I believe that as an organization moves to implement the use of social media, they would be wise to engage in a strategic planning process based on these questions, or similar questions.

If you are using, have used social media, and are trying to implement where you are, you could be finding that it’s not as easy as it seems. I recently had a friend express some of his frustrations with this as his organization moves to adopt social media. The fact is for some it can be anxiety provoking, the idea of giving up control of the message, granting increased access through these new channels, and what about the TROLLS???? These are valid fears, and all the more reason that organizations need to think critically about their social media strategy.

As I move forward with my proposal for my dissertation, I am hoping to survey many nonprofit organizations about their READINESS. Questions may include:
-Do you have a social media strategy?
-Where do you hope to see the greatest ROI on your social media strategy?
-What is your plan to sustain your SM strategy?
-What was your process of implementation for social media?
-How do you measure the impact of your SM strategy?

These are just a few questions, and again, if you have more then please leave a comment. I would greatly appreciate diverse perspectives on this as it helps me to stay on the ground with my thinking.

My hope is that through my dissertation I will be able to find some value in moving nonprofit organizations to adopt social media in a more meaningful way. Stay tuned…


About jimmysw
Associate Professor of Social Work with a focus on the Future of Social Media, Social Work Education and all things technology.

2 Responses to What is a Sustainable Organization?

  1. Pingback: Book Review…The Networked Nonprofit « Jimmysw's Blog

  2. Andy Darwish says:

    Excellent piece. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info specially the first part. I care for such information much. I was looking for this particular information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

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