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The strategic approach to sustainability

In an increasingly competitive environment, calls for nonprofits to pursue sustainability are rampant. However, the concept is often oversimplified, emphasizing the financial sustainability of an organization to the exclusion of all else. True sustainability means so much more.

At GCN, we’re concerned primarily with sustaining impact. This concept goes beyond secure funding for the organization as-is, looking instead at exactly what’s needed to ensure that the most important work continues. What’s needed may be a merger or partnership, a major directional shift, the end of an initiative, or the creation of a for-profit enterprise to fund mission-critical objectives.

There are three big engines working together to sustain long-term impact: economic value, capacity, and social value creation.

Economic value—the way content and related activity can be monetized—requires strategies for revenue generation as well as revenue diversification. This doesn’t happen by accident: It requires a clear business model that defines how a nonprofit creates, delivers, and captures value.

Capacity is the expertise an organization has on hand. Maintaining capacity in an ever-changing environment requires a nimble approach. "Capacity confidence" means achieving a balance of expertise—in business, in the mission, in technology—that enables experimentation, innovation, and the drive to apply new methods in pursuit of more efficient and effective work.

Social value creation is the organizational know-how to assess the impact of its work on the core challenges presented by its mission. Beyond utilizing evaluative data, it requires engaging stakeholders to identify and understand what’s working on the ground.

If an organization can create strategies that drive those three factors in concert, longterm sustainability will likely follow. This kind of coordination, however, is often difficult to achieve. Some have figured out a great model, but are unable to adapt in a dynamic environment—and, as a result, unable to take advantage of a new customer set or opportunity. Others have great capacity to innovate, yet struggle to craft an executable strategy around the idea. And some have plenty of valuable data and stakeholder insight, but fail to assess it properly to generate greater impact or efficiency.

Financial success stems directly from a strategy that creates measurable proof of impact.

That’s why great strategy is a necessity. Financial success stems directly from a strategy that creates measurable proof of impact. This proof, in turn, drives trust, engagement, investment, and innovation. As leaders, we need to focus on developing multi-dimensional, sustainability-driving strategies. The money will follow.

Karen Beavor is president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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