So sustainability means being adaptable and responsive. Not just changing and growing, but knowing how to change and grow in manageable, sustainable ways.
It’s important to realise that when we talk about sustaining something we’re not talking about keeping it going just as it is. Things change. Organisms, organisations and systems change as they evolve through different stages of their lifecycles. Sustainability requires us to evolve in anticipation of, and response to, what’s going on around us.
However this also comes with risks. Non-profit organisations tend to grow quite organically, in response to funding and opportunities that become available to them. Because funding pays for activity and outcomes, non-profits often diversify their activity or outcomes in order to diversify income. This can lead to them becoming pulled out of shape. Spreading their tentacles in new directions, they become octopus shaped. That becomes problematic when tentacles reach out in all different directions! And the more the tentacles grow, the smaller the head and body become in proportion.
Strategy and planning
For most organisations the opportunity to combine planning and responsiveness comes when they develop a new strategic plan. This should set clear parameters for what the organisation will – and by definition, will not – do. But it should also allow for adaptation within those parameters. Chief executives want to be held to account for the strategy’s success, but they also want flexibility about how those goals are achieved. As Henry Mintzberg observed, strategy walks on two feet, one planned, the other emergent.
These strategic plans aim to strike the balance between planning and emergence: they are short and punchy, setting a clear vision but letting the detail be defined somewhere else (typically an annual workplan or business plan):
It’s easy to get pulled out of shape by pursuing new ideas, opportunities, partnerships and funding. Sustainable organisations develop criteria for assessing new opportunities, helping them to be clear on what to say yes – and no – to. The examples below don’t just assess financial capability, they also explore knowledge, capacity and other strategic resources.
Quality frameworks typically measure processes, not outcomes, as a way to understand effectiveness. However the tools below are still compatible with outcome-based approaches to planning and evaluation.
ACOSVO Director Skills Audit – this is a straightforward but thorough tool to help boards assess their skills and experience. This can be useful for trustee development as well as for succession planning and recruitment – what skills does you board have, and which does it need to find or develop?