"" Tim Coates: Searching for sustainability

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Searching for sustainability

Sustainability used to mean going green. Now it refers to how organizations can live forever. 

Finding the silver bullet of organizational sustainability comes up a lot in my conversations. This past week it came up during a meeting with social enterprise folks and again in a chat with a nonprofit leader. Then, while walking my dog, it was the focus of a CSI podcast on nonprofit leadership.

In each of these conversations it was implied that once found, a sustainable model will lead to an organization with the systems, capacity and resources to do the work that needs done. Adding for-profit work to help pay for nonprofit missions is often mentioned as part of the sustainability solution. 

Seth Godin wrote a blog post recently about the difference between goods that are bought and sold. Bottled water is bought. When I’m on the road no one sells me bottled water, I search it out. In almost all cases donations are sold. They would never happen unless someone convinced me that I should part with my money to support their cause. 

Sustainable social enterprise models will likely always involve their services being sold. There will need to be people out there pitching and corralling support for the cause. Any fundraiser will tell you that that course never feels sustainable. Preferences change. Business gets bad. Someone else got there first. 

Two of the three senior leaders on the podcast spoke of their search for sustainable enterprise models. They represented and spoke about some of the iconic brands in civil society who have been active for more than 100 years. Organizations like the Red Cross and Goodwill Industries. 

It seems these organizations have figured out sustainability. They know their customers and how to reach them. They have a well defined value proposition. But the podcast made clear they're still looking for a sustainable model. What they have done is found a way to make the search sustainable.

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