This is part 5 of a 7-part series on the Domains of Sustainable Impact. You can start the full series here.
5. Other organisations are more able to respond and take a lead.
- If your aims are achieved, does it matter who achieves them?
- Are there parts of your work you could equip other people to do, so you don’t need to?
- If it’s not your job to educate other services, whose it?
Partnership and ownership are fundamental to lasting impact, just as they are to organisational sustainability. Collaboration helps harness resources – and use them more efficiently – to achieve things you couldn’t do alone. It equips other people to contribute to your aims and brings you together with a common purpose.
Sustainable organisations see themselves as part of a healthy ecosystem. They are open to their external environments, not shut off from them. They share their ideas and resources because they know that this:
- Helps promulgate their ideas and further their aims
- Improves practice in other organisations
- Builds sector capacity
- Improves partnership responses
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Promulgating ideas and furthering aims
Organisations often talk about competition for funding and limited resources. But just as often they overlook competition for discourse: setting the agenda and getting the attention you believe your cause deserves. Your non-profit’s time, resources and expertise are all in short supply. It makes sense to get your ideas out there as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Often this means letting go of them, equipping other people with messages and resources they can use in their own work or in their own ways. In their influential book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms (founder of #GivingTuesday) point out that the most effective ideas are communicated in ways that are:
- Actionable – people can do something with them, including sharing.
- Connected – enlisting willing networks of people to spread ideas.
- Extensible – encouraging people to shape the idea in their own way.
Not only do these strategies spread your message, they give you access to knowledge, expertise and effort that would otherwise be out of your reach – and budget.
For everyone who has ever asked why our flagship Lasting Difference and Lasting Leadership toolkits are free, using a Creative Commons licence that allows remixing, there’s your answer. We want you to share our definitions and resources with everyone who needs them! There’s a clear business case for us: thousands of users get everything they need from the guides. This makes us very happy because we achieve our single focused goal without using up our capacity. At the same time, dozens of users follow up and enlist our services. This makes us very busy and does affect our capacity, but we can take people further, faster, with the foundation the toolkits give them.
Promulgating your ideas in this way isn’t risk-free if organisational sustainability is your concern: this is about sustaining impact.
For instance, environmental charities and campaign groups have done such a good job of mainstreaming environmental issues that everyone thinks they understand them, and most organisations do something about them. Some environmental charities now find themselves having to focus on specialist or niche subjects, or struggling to get public engagement or funding. Every house has a recycling bin these days, for example, but messages about ‘reduce and reuse’ haven’t been mainstreamed in the same way. This takes us back to the Fourth Domain: if your organisation is successful, will it still be needed, and if so, what will its purpose be?
Sharing your ideas will help to improve practice in the sector or world around you (assuming they’re good ideas!). Any charity that works with people should be particularly interested in this, as it will give the people they support better access to a wider range of appropriate services. (Yet how many organisations hang onto people, in the paternalistic belief that ‘no-one else cares for them like we do’?)
Sharing ideas and ownership of an issue helps you to ensure the voice of the people or causes you support gets heard. If you have done your work in the previous Domains, you’ll have good evidence of what’s needed in your field, e.g. new needs that are emerging, or what people want. This is valuable evidence that can be used to inform other organisations and improve practice. (The Sixth Domain is about using this to influence policy). Sharing it boosts your organisation’s credibility as a ‘go to’ partner whose expertise is sought.
Again this can be a mixed blessing for organisational sustainability – it helps your profile but can affect capacity. As the Chief Executive of an equalities organisation recently put it to me ‘A few years ago we were banging on closed doors. Now everyone’s knocking on ours, and we can’t say yes to everyone.’
Building sector capacity
The steps above all help to build other organisations’ capacity: their knowledge, their connections and the resources available to them. For some organisations, like membership charities or infrastructure bodies, this is their core purpose. For others, it’s a good answer to the universal funding question ‘How will you sustain this work when the funding stops?’ – you’ll build other people’s ability to take it forwards. This helps sustainability by reducing reliance on you, maximising your limited capacity and resources, and increasing the number and diversity of organisations supporting your cause or furthering your messages.
Again, a reminder about competition for resources and discourse is useful here. In a well-used business school example, when car manufacturers wanted to develop people carriers, they shared the research and development costs by creating a common chassis – there’s a reason people carriers all look the same. Similarly, they worked together to create a market for the cars, only then competing for a share of that market based on the car body and interior. Examples of this approach (sometimes called co-opetition) are not unusual in the non-profit world, with alliances working together to raise awareness of an issue, which each partner might then provide a different approach to. For more insights about this, check out Graeme’s interview with Martin Christopher, one of the first academics to identify that companies don’t compete all the time, and when they do compete it’s as networks not individual organisations (Video link and Audio download).
Improving partnership responses
Every organisation’s capacity, reach and resources are limited. Sustainable organisations know that the best people don’t all work for them! In summary, the Fifth Domain of sustainable impact is about enabling and improving partnership responses, harnessing resources and focusing them on a common goal.
(C) Wren and Greyhound 2020. This is an excerpt from the second edition of Graeme’s book, Making A Lasting Difference, available in the New Year. A small number of first edition copies are still available to order here.