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5 Factors of Sustainability: What are the key factors of sustainability

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We have a newer version with three factors of sustainability:

  1. Social Impact: Why Do You Do What You Do?
  2. Economic Viability: How Do You Fund What You Do?
  3. Capacity to Deliver: What Supports What You Do?

Though the article focuses on responding amid COVID-19, these factors are relevant to organizations at any point in time.

What are the key factors of sustainability? Across the board, nonprofit organizations are on a quest for sustainability. Despite the growing interest in the topic, confusion often exists as to what sustainability for a nonprofit organization entails. For many people sustainability means one thing and one thing only: financial health.

And we can understand why, especially in this economy.

But at Community Wealth Partners we believe that an organization’s financial health is just one piece of its sustainability quotient. One of five pieces, actually. Which is why, in 2009, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation engaged Community Wealth Partners to study the sustainability of nonprofit start-up news organizations. Like any good journalist it would support, the Knight Foundation wanted to know the WHOLE story of sustainability for these organizations.

Over the course of nearly two years, Community Wealth Partners worked closely with the Knight Foundation and eight of its grantee organizations to develop a holistic look at sustainability. The findings of this research were shared in the Knight Foundation’s recently released report, “Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.”

Interested in your own sustainability investigation?

Just like the journalism industry, the factors of sustainability are ever-evolving.  Community Wealth Partners recommends that nonprofit organizations consider how they are performing across five key drivers of sustainability: social impact, focused business strategy, economic viability, adaptability, and capacity to deliver.  Each driver, assessed with both a short- and long-term lens, is critical for long-term organizational viability.

Use the questions below to step back, evaluate your organization and determine where you need to focus additional time and attention to ensure that your organization is not just keeping, but staying a step ahead of our ever-evolving environment.

Social Impact: Why do you do what you do?

Results of efforts taken by organizations or individuals that solve or positively advance social issues by producing a positive change in attitude, behavior or condition for the target constituency.

This requires an informed understanding of the social problem, a clear articulation of vision, mission and goals and a process to measure and evaluate outcomes.

Focused Business Strategy: How do you do what you do?

Understanding of what has to happen to achieve the organization’s social goals and choices the organization makes about how to accomplish those goals.

This requires a plan to identify and understand the operating environment, create a unique value proposition and develop a supporting business model.

Economic Viability: What drives what you do?

Financial health of an organization; sustainable organizations have an operating model that generates a surplus that will carry the organization’s work forward in the long-term.

This requires a firm command of the organization’s liquidity, profitability, revenue growth, revenue sources and resource allocation.

Capacity to Deliver: What supports what you do?

Talent, infrastructure and organizational processes needed to execute the business strategy in order to deliver social impact.

This requires an understanding of the business capacity of a nonprofit organization with an explicit focus on internal strengths and weaknesses across multiple areas of the organization.

Adaptability: When do you change what you do?

The discipline of updating and/or developing products and services in anticipation or response to changes in customer needs, behaviors and the operating environment.

This requires consistent monitoring of the four cylinders of the sustainability model: social impact; focused business strategy; economic viability and capacity to deliver guided by a clear understanding of the reasons and goals for change and a spirit of innovation.


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