Charity Awards 2024

Deconstructing ‘sustainability’

What does sustainability mean to your charity? Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman offer some insight.

What does sustainability mean to your charity? Jeanne BellJan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman offer some insight.

Maybe in some mythic past it was possible to think first about strategic impact goals, and then about how to raise the money. But today we know better: you can’t talk about what you’re going to do without talking about how to get the money. And, you can’t talk about how to get money without talking about what you’re going to do. 

What is sustainability?

Most of us in charities are familiar with setting project goals. For instance, we might set a goal of reducing alcoholism by 10 per cent in a particular city, or a goal of increasing rural youth employment. Nevertheless, we often aren’t sure what our financial goals are, or even what they should be. If the financial goal in a for-profit company is to maximise profit, should our goal as a charity be to have £0 profit? Or should the goal be to grow an endowment of £10m, or to have a surplus of 5 per cent or a deficit of no more than £50,000?

In classical economics, the answer to this question is that the financial goal of a charity is to ensure that it has adequate working capital; that is, its financial goal is to have enough money to do its work over the long term. Today we often use the term ‘sustainability’ for this goal.

But the term is used in different ways to suggest various things. Foundations and social entrepreneurs often describe a plan for sustainability as one that relies on earned income rather than on donations (although both earned income and donations can support long-term financial viability). When strategic plans are said to include goals for sustainability, what is often meant is that the plans include the goal of developing a more diversified income base. And environmentalists describe sustainability in terms of practices that are non-polluting and that conserve energy and natural resources.

We like the United Nations’ definition of sustainability: doing what is required “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. And we like the Wikipedia definition of sustainability: “the capacity to endure”.

Here are two ways of thinking about sustainability in a charity context:

  1. Sustainability encompasses both financial sustainability (the ability to generate resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future) and programmatic sustainability (the ability to develop, mature, and cycle out projects to be responsive to constituencies over time).
  2. Sustainability is an orientation, not a destination. Sometimes the phrase ‘sustainable business model’ sounds as if it refers to a place that, once reached, will allow the organisation to generate financial resources on an ongoing basis while the board and staff sit back, relax, and watch it happen.

But what is sustainable today may be unsustainable tomorrow. Funding streams dry up or shift focus; programmatic practices evolve; client populations change. We never arrive at a mix of projects and revenue streams that can be described as permanently sustainable. But we can always be heading in the right direction.

In practice, achieving sustained financial stability and mission impact means having leaders make major decisions while holding both objectives – as well as those two objectives’ deep interconnectedness – front and centre at all times.

What do we mean by the term interconnectedness? Consider the example of a community centre that cannot simply discontinue its annual neighbourhood festival because of skyrocketing insurance and security costs. It has to consider the degree to which the community depends on the festival to promote local business and improve trust among neighbours. It also has to consider how its funders in local government would react to the festival’s cancellation, given how much the funders use the festival as a venue for showing local responsiveness. There are simply no major decisions that do not have simultaneous, intertwined implications for mission and money.

We suggest these guidelines:

  • Sustainability has financial sustainability at its core. Charity emphasis on real-world impacts and on mission alignment is fundamental, but the separation of impact goals from financial goals and strategies has been a deep flaw in both business planning and strategic planning within the charity world. Financial sustainability is not only a legitimate goal; it is a necessary, intrinsic, core goal.
  • Recognise that today’s charities have hybrid revenue strategies. Nearly all charities now are hybrid organisations rather than traditionally funded charities: they combine donations, earned income, contracts, grants, and other income types. As a result, different financial goals must be set for different types of income streams, and they must be managed in significantly different ways.
  • Develop an explicit charity business model statement. Every charity has a business model, whether or not it has articulated its strategy as such. Each project and fundraising line must be managed individually, but this must be done in the context of an overall integrated business strategy. Leadership’s role is to develop and communicate that overall strategy as one that brings together all the activities – which will have different financial goals – into a viable business model.
  • Affirm continuous decision-making. Today’s charities face constantly changing situations that require decision-making and choicemaking at all levels of strategy. The global economic crisis has underscored the reality that the environment changes in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Internal changes – the departure of a key staff person, for example, or a project’s becoming stale – also demand decisions. In addition to detailed projections, leaders need a compass to support constant decision-making.

Traditional strategic planning might be likened to looking at a road map, choosing a destination, and setting out on the route. Today’s continuous strategic decision-making might be more like sailing into the unknown, tacking towards the pole star and changing course as winds and tides demand. Embrace the journey. The world is in our boats.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Charity Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, by Jeanne Bell chief executive, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Jan Masaoka chief executive, The California Association of Nonprofits and Steve Zimmerman principal, Spectrum Nonprofit Services