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Does Big = Sustainable?

The Academy for Educational Development (AED) is selling its programs and assets and closing its doors.

This announcement, made last week, was a bit surprising to many of us who sit outside the organizational walls. After all, it’s a 50-year-old, $440 million institution with 250 programs worldwide and staff in more than 60 countries.

For years, major foundations and governmental agencies have bet on AED’s effectiveness by issuing large, multi-year grants and contracts to the organization.  And as recently as 2009, it received $76 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for child nutrition work in Africa and Asia.

The AED announcement reminds us that size and sustainability are not necessarily interconnected.

At Community Wealth Partners, we study and consult on both growth and sustainability.  At times, leaders talk as if these two ideas work in perfect harmony, seeing one as indicative of success in the other: “If you’re growing, then you must have already achieved sustainability at your current size.  If you’re sustainable at your current size, then you should grow and expand your impact. Right?” This is a myth we’ve encountered many times over.

In truth, it depends.

Growing effective programs that are responsive to community needs and informed by results are clear signals that an organization is on the right path to sustainability. However, size alone – whether it is the size of an organization’s budget, the number of donors, the geographic reach of its programs, or the number of staff – is not a measure of sustainability.

While it’s easy to focus on the negative in AED’s current situation, there are some important bright spots:

  • It appears that the organization is genuinely focused on preserving its impact over preserving itself.
  • The organization is aiming to divest critical programs in an uninterrupted fashion to other organizations—all in an effort to sustain its intended impact in the areas of education, health, civil society and economic development.

If one defines sustainability in terms of continuing to deliver social impact, then only the coming weeks, months and years will tell whether AED is successful in realizing some level of sustainability for its most important work:  its impact on lives around the world.

We look forward to continuing to explore this question of sustainability, and we hope you will join us.

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy’s full bio

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