What hope have we got for sustainability now?

Everybody’s talking about it.  We need to work out how to make our organisation sustainable, they say.  But what does it actually mean?  And is it possible?

I work quite a lot with third sector organisations, and many of them approach social enterprise with a Robin Hood perspective – “let’s set up a business which will earn us money so that we can continue to do other things which we’re struggling to sustain”.  

That’s fine, but it’s often quite unrealistic.  In most cases, the proposed new venture is the organisation’s first real attempt to diversify its income base. Let’s not underestimate the culture shift that this entails.  It will also be the start of a pretty steep learning curve – and mistakes tend to cost you money, rather than make you money.  So the new venture has a lot to achieve – it needs to wash its own face, and, in the interests of organisational sustainability, it is expected to hand some cash to the mother ship too.

The next few years are going to be tough.  The general public are feeling the pinch.  The public sector will see its finances tighten.  Private sector partners are skint.  The Olympics are taking all the Lottery cash.  And the new philanthropists aren’t quite as rich as they were.  All of these factors – and more – mean that trying to sustain third sector organisations is going to be harder than ever.

What do you do?  There are no easy answers, but here are a few ideas.  

Accept that being sustainable is probably unattainable.  What on earth is sustainable?  The best you can do is keep doing all you can to secure a variety of sources of income, with a clear understanding that it’s pretty likely that as soon as you think you’ve got it sorted, something else will happen which means you’re not sustainable any more.  That, for me, is part of what being entrepreneurial is all about.  

Take a long, hard, honest look at yourselves.  Perhaps the most enterprising thing you can do is stop doing something that doesn’t really help you to achieve your social mission.  Stopping doing certain things – what Drucker called organised abandonment – may be the best thing you can do.

Take responsibility for the situation you are in.  It’s not hard to find people to blame for the predicament you’re in.  The Council, bankers, Government, an unjust world, unfair competition etc etc.   But if you’re going to find a way to keep delivering change, then it’s up to you (that includes you, management committee members) to work out what you’re going to do.   It’s harsh, but at the end of the day, no-one – other than you – really cares whether you survive or not.   So it’s up to you to do something about it.


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