[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The principles and paradoxes of sustainability

One of the core principles of sustainability is that it is about more than just money. Finance is only one of the sustainability challenges faced by not-for-profit organisations – and their funders.

 The yes/no paradox – or the over-inflated balloon

The first paradox is that many organisations are not unsustainable because they have missed or said ‘No’ to new opportunities. Actually, it’s more common to have sustainability problems because they have said ‘Yes’! Ironically, funding, tenders, referrals, partnerships (etc.) can pull organisations out of shape. They can compromise quality, reduce capacity, deplete reserves by not covering their costs and so on.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]If this sounds strange, ask yourself ‘Do I regret saying yes more than I regret saying no?’. When I use this question in workshops and conference presentations the sound of pennies dropping is almost audible!

It’s extremely hard to say no. But the second paradox from our experience is that services who have said ‘No’ always speak confidently about it – and the benefits it brought. They may have temporarily closed their doors to referrals, or not pursued a funding bid, or taken time to restructure. And in every case they had not only lived to tell the tale, they were stronger for it. More sustainable. That’s not to say it’s easy. But there’s only so much air you can put in a balloon before it bursts.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][us_single_image image=”265″ size=”full” align=”center”][vc_column_text]

What are you holding onto? What could you let go of?

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The octopus paradox

Another common sustainability challenge is the octopus-shaped organisation. They have grown in organic ways, reaching out a tentacle towards this funding pot over here, reaching out another to that field of work over there. They have diversified their income by diversifying their activities. But over time the tentacles grow further apart from the body and away from each other. And, with less core funding, the head and body get smaller as the tentacles grow.

There comes a time when this becomes unsustainable. That’s when organisations need to step back and review their core purpose, to pull in their tentacles. The most common charity survival strategy since the financial collapse of 2009 has been to refocus on the core. It’s a hard message, but no organisation has the right to exist for its own sake. Sustainable organisations know what they do best, and they know what to let go of. Sustainable strategy means acknowledging that more of something means less of something else.


The myth of perpetual motion

Funders try not to create dependency on their funds. It is not sustainable for projects to return to the same pot time after time, and not just because the pot is limited. Things change, and projects need to adapt and learn in response. However the most dangerous and persistent myth about sustainability is the expectation that projects can be sustained once the funding stops. It’s a bit like the famous scene from the Mork and Mindy TV series where Robin Williams tosses an egg into the air, encouraging it to ‘Fly, be free!’. (If you’ve not seen this episode, it doesn’t end well for the egg!).

We need to challenge the myth of the self-sustaining organisation, of the perpetual motion machine that will run forever without input of some kind. Early in the funding cycle funders should support organisations to prepare plans for when the funding ends.


Deep pockets, short arms

This is a paradox because the people who have money (funders, commissioners) are sometimes the ones who expect the people without it to find the answer to sustainability. Funders’ application forms almost always ask about how the work will be sustained when the funding stops, and what the project’s exit strategy will be. Hardly any offer to define ‘sustainability’ or give a template for an appropriate ‘exit strategy’. If funders are serious about their funds making a lasting difference they should invest in building capacity for sustainability.

Thankfully the Lasting Difference contains straightforward definitions, templates and exit strategies! It can’t resolve all the paradoxes, but it can equip you to make sense of them.


Sustainable impact

It’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t about keeping things the way they are – or about keeping organisations or projects going. Actually, it’s not about you, and it’s definitely not about accepting the status quo. Private companies have organisational survival foremost on their list of goals. But non-profit organisations exist to improve and change things.

Helpfully though, focusing on sustainable impact (making a lasting difference) is actually a very good way to become more sustainable.


Encourage independence and ownership

The best way to make a lasting difference is to help ensure that the people (or issues) you support need you less in future. Full independence isn’t always possible or desirable. But have you done everything you can to help people strengthen their support networks, take their next steps and increase their independence? Many non-profit organisations talk about hoping to ‘do themselves out of a job’ by fulfilling their mission. But how close are you to making this rhetoric a reality? And how comfortable are you with your answer to that question?


Increase influence and capacity

Ironically, two of the biggest risks to sustainability are unchecked growth and mission drift. You need to be focused and responsible enough to accept that some issues or projects are not your ‘core business’. Sometimes there are more appropriate organisations to take a project forward. Where there aren’t, you still need to think carefully before filling the void.

One of the ways you can make a lasting difference is to improve other organisations’ understanding of, and commitment to, your work, issues or client groups. Sustainability is about impact, not just projects. For some projects, improving other services’ policy and practice is an important sustainability goal in its own right.



In recent years, the trend has been for work to be funded or commissioned not just for the activities carried out, or even the outcomes achieved, but for the learning that is generated.  How can you contribute to other people’s learning about what works?

Even when things end, learning can help to build a bridge to the future. Indeed, sharing and preserving learning are sometimes the only way to ensure a lasting difference. For example, projects or models that wind up (e.g. due to lack of funding) can be more easily resurrected if key learning has been preserved. And to plan or fund a new project you must to be able to evidence the need for it.

Find out more about exit strategies and the role of learning in Part Three of the Lasting Difference.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]