Does Sustainability Mean Forever?

Infinity sign over colourful landscape and small dark images of people. Forever and Always built into the symbol

We can better achieve organizational sustainability with a common understanding within each organization. That would ensure our efforts and resources can be aligned towards the same type of sustainability. Otherwise, they may be scattered or even at odds.

Last year I joined the board of a land trust. I’ve working with and in many kinds of organizations, but this is the first one that budgets for forever! Having to plan for land stewardship in perpetuity has made me think more deeply about how that compares and differs from other organizations.

I acknowledge that many of us use sustainability strictly in the environmental sense. I feel very strongly about the survival of a healthy planet and biodiversity, but that’s not the focus of this article. I’m referring to how long our organizations need to exist, and how different time spans affect their decisions and priorities.

Story: I was once facilitating a strategic planning session where a professional staff member described the ideal future as “one where we are still around struggling to build awareness of our issue.” Yikes! If you have people like that, consider some education for them. She would never had planned for an end to her organization, and it was definitely not one that needs to last forever. In fact, they’ve achieved many of their highest goals since that session and are well on their way to a happy ending (though probably not in my lifetime).

What’s the life span of a not-for-profit?

I’ve given the land trust as one end of continuum, though even then we acknowledge that with an engaged and committed general population, the land might someday be protected without a formal organization. Many other not-for-profits would like to exist forever, such as religious bodies, but that depends on how long people adhere to and support that faith. Some last thousands of years, and others do not survive their founder (we call the latter cults, and are glad to see them gone).

What about all the social service agencies? I believe most need to plan for, and work towards, a time when they will not be needed. The majority are intended to address issues arising from poverty, and I hope we soon put an end to poverty. I have no use for those who believe poverty will always be with us; people used to say that about smallpox. If we believe poverty will always be with us, we don’t make progress towards eradication.

It’s not just the organizations that we classify as social services. We won’t need organizations that help poor children participate in music or sports, because all families will be able to have their children participate as they choose. We won’t need legal aid clinics or subsidized housing either.

Organizations serving people with disabilities, frail seniors and other such vulnerable individuals will likely still be needed. But if none of their clients are poor, they will have to rethink their programs, services and revenues and offer good, customized choices.

Similarly, organizations for the different diseases and body parts ailments can close once their disease is eliminated, and need to support those efforts. There may be a transition time—perhaps a full generation—to support the lingering effects of the disease on past sufferers. Or such organizations can transform themselves to address a different cause, as March of Dimes did when polio was eliminated. That’s sustainability through a second wave rather than a continued mission.

Professional and industry organizations have a life span dictated by that profession or industry. If there is no demand for their products or services, the industry dies or the profession withers away. The associations can reinvent themselves or wind up. Unions and regulatory bodies are in a similar position.

What About Health and Education?

I’m a firm believer in public, nonprofit services in these fields and I don’t see the need going away. These organizations are big enough to shift priorities and realign efforts as the world changes. For example, with smart vehicles, better roads and an end to substance abuse, hospitals won’t need nearly as many services for accident victims. Better treatment options for people with mental health challenges, and better preventative care, could free up a lot of resources for other health services. Once a backlog is dealt with, hospitals can become much smaller (relative to population size) and nimbler.

What Does It Take to be Sustainable?

Most people think about strong and diverse sources of revenue, reserves for times without sufficient income and fiduciary care to ensure resources are prudently. That’s the obvious part—though far from easy, especially when it’s forever like a land trust.

But what else? How about board succession – good plans to replace board members and officers who are leaving. Executive succession, for planned leaves and retirements and for more sudden? Leadership development efforts to strengthen and maintain the management team? Job shadowing and other efforts to ensure key roles can be carried out, and knowledge transferred, without disruption regardless of who leaves, even that ‘indispensable’ person? Record-keeping that safely preserves knowledge and data? Hiring people who care more about the mission than job security?

Mostly, however, it takes agreement on a desired outcome and rigorous alignment of work towards that outcome. Even if your charity serving people living in poverty is not focused on ending poverty, it can at least provide moral support to those who are, and not take actions that stand in the way of such over-arching goals for a better world.

How Can a Not-for-Profit Go Away?

A good process is called an orderly wind-up. Your legal documents likely say how assets are to be dealt with—normally transferred to a not-for-profit with a related mission. Staff, volunteers, clients, partners and suppliers can be treated humanely and respectfully, with as much notice as possible. The key is planning ahead, with legal and accounting advice. No one should ever arrive to find locked doors and a bailiff.

Crescent Moon with words Winding Down

Overall, plan for the sustainability that’s right for your organization. Put strong processes for sustainability into your planning, and implement them. Be prepared for the organization to end. Don’t continue to drain resources from your community after you aren’t needed.

When your mission is achieved, reinvent or stop.