Defining Success: How Not-for-Profits Should Answer the Call for Greater Sustainability

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Smart Business Philadelphia magazine.

Sustainability. What does it mean for a not-for-profit organization and how are leaders addressing it, if at all?

“For many not-for-profits, sustainability has become one of the leading topics of discussion in board meetings and strategic planning initiatives, and is considered by management in their approach to each day’s operations,” says Elizabeth F. Pilacik, director, Audit & Accounting, at Kreischer Miller.

Smart Business spoke with Pilacik about sustainability in the not-for-profit world: what it means, why it is so important and how organizations can take steps to achieve it.

Why does sustainability seem to be at the forefront of conversation in not-for-profit organizations?

The subject has become more prevalent through conversations with funders, grantors and donors as their focus has changed from immediate support for a worthwhile mission to a long-term outcome approach; namely, an investment in the future of the organization and the community it serves.

Faced with changes in funding models and with a highly competitive process to access new financial resources, organizations need to evolve their focus past simply delivering on their mission.

What is meant by sustainability in the context of the not-for-profit world?

By definition, sustainability is ‘the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld or confirmed.’ To further deepen that understanding, to sustain means to provide for an establishment or institution by furnishing means or funds; to support means to maintain and/or provide for an establishment or institution by supplying them with things necessary to exist; uphold means to keep up or keep from sinking; and confirm means to make firm or more firm, adding strength.

Leaders in the not-for-profit world need to ask if they are providing for their organizations with means or funds for the things necessary for their continued existence, thereby adding strength and keeping it from sinking.

How is sustainability implemented?

Taking action to protect an organization’s sustainability may be much more complex than many in management or members sitting on the board realize.

While the concept of sustainability may have found its origins in the management of financial resources, it has developed into a more complex and challenging topic. In a continuously changing landscape, sustainability is not only financial but also programmatic, technological, strategic, and dependent upon human capital.

Defining sustainability for an organization is the first step; from there, the next step is to strategize to build strength and capacity. The decisions fall among choices such as how to diversify resources, how to go about recruiting team members and/or volunteers, the ways in which organizations address succession planning at various levels, and/or an organization’s approach to building mutually beneficial strategic partnerships and alliances.

When thinking about the sustainability of an organization, adaptability and perspective are two essential aspects — the organization needs to monitor, assess, respond to and create change while also focusing on its ability to connect with stakeholders, and to emphasize organizational outcomes and performance.

What should be the expected outcome once a more sustainable organization is created?

While just the act of addressing sustainability may present a challenge in many ways, it will ultimately strengthen and help preserve the organization in fulfilling its mission for many years to come. 

Elizabeth F. Pilacik can be reached at Email or 215.441.4600.

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