What Is a Sustainable Organization?

Back when I was teaching about sustainability in the context of green building programs, I used, as a definition of sustainability, “the most efficient use of resources over the lifetime of the building.” I called my consulting firm Sustainable Places, Sustainable Organizations because I believe the same principles apply to nonprofits as apply to any other system: that resources, which include time and people as well as money, must be wisely used, not just for the short term, but also for the long-term well being of the organization.

What makes a nonprofit organization sustainable? Here are a few areas of focus:

Comprehensive relationship management. This requires a single, unified database, that enables staff and volunteers to understand the complete relationship with individuals and organizations: recent and past donations, time given to volunteer projects, involvement with other organizations, participation in events. You should understand all of the ways people are involved and be in touch with them frequently, not just to ask for money, but to ask for advice and let them know what’s happening and how their participation is helping your organization grow. It’s so much easier to build on existing supporters than try to find new ones. I’ve written about CRM programs in the past; Salesforce is one. It’s free. Do make sure that, after taking the time to acquire the data, you use it.

Continual leadership development. Do you know who’ll be leading your organization for the next five years? Do you have a plan in the event the president-elect has to withdraw at the last minute? It’s not just about the next board chair, but about developing leadership strength and depth at all levels: board, committees, one-time volunteers. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to run the board or manage the event or serve on the finance committee just because they’ve offered to. Learning new skills is an important benefit of volunteering and equally important to retention. A leadership pipeline is critical to smooth operations.

The same is true for staff. Make sure you’re budgeting for professional development. In your annual review, find out if there are skills the ED would like an opportunity to develop. Are there clear job descriptions for each position? Should the ED decide to depart, is there a succession plan?

Annual review of systems. Are your systems efficient and up to date or is your staff spending unnecessary time trying to make outdated computer systems work? Does your phone system enable messages to be searched and archived? Do you have systems in place to update software? Does your accounting system need streamlining? Are there other areas that can be automated without “loss of human contact,” to enable your staff and volunteers to spend more time doing the things that only humans can do?


Review your space
. We’ve all visited nonprofit offices that are repositories of incredible amounts of “stuff”: table centerpieces from last year’s luncheon, flip charts from the last strategic planning session five years ago, leftover plates and napkins from dozens of board meetings, boxes of files no one’s looked at for years. Everyone is happier and more productive working in an organized environment and a lot of clutter makes it hard to find needed information. If your office is suffering from accretions from the last few decades, organize an ad hoc committee to spend several afternoons or evenings organizing. The volunteers will learn things they never knew and you may find that missing cd of photos you’ve been looking for for six months.

Document retention. Having important, regularly accessed documents in a central location will save huge amounts of time. Most contact relationship management programs enable digital document storage, including emails and voice mail messages, which can provide an alternative to retaining paper documents in the office. A document retention policy that is integrated into daily operations, with documentation of where documents are stored, will not only save time but also ensure items are available when leadership changes.

Make it easier. Can prospective volunteers find information about volunteer jobs and sign up online? Is the volunteer chair notified automatically and does the volunteer’s information automatically get added to the database? Can a donation be made with one click? Can your donors make donations in monthly or quarterly installments?

In my experience, time is the resource most frequently squandered by nonprofit organizations. But donors and volunteers have little patience for misuse of that resource particularly. Remember that there’s a lot of competition for support of all kinds. By making all of your activities easier and more streamlined, you’ll be making the best use of your donors’ and your volunteers’ time–and they will love you for it.

Using time, money and people effectively will ensure that your organization will better weather the vagaries of the economy and survive for the long term, and that is what sustainability is all about.