New Mexico Part 1: Form Follows Function

In Sustainability by Karen Buck

Last week I was with a group in New Mexico conducting a full-day training on organizational and program sustainability. We talked about the factors in their operating environment that make sustainability a challenge, like the down-turned economy and the changing priorities of major funders. We walked through the Integrated Strategy for Success and Sustainability and used it as a lens to assess what opportunities and gaps exist related to long-term sustainability. But things got interesting when the discussion moved from Identity and Constituents to Capacity.

Since most of us first think “Funding!” when we hear the word sustainability, many people struggle to understand how the components of capacity other than an organization’s ability to bring in revenue have much to do with sustainability. Why worry about other components of capacity before you can raise enough money to fund them, right?

But this group in New Mexico really got it. At the beginning of the day, I had asked them to describe the characteristics of a strong, potent, sustainable organization. Only one of the twenty-some characteristics they listed related to money. Other characteristics they noted were strong leadership, dedicated staff and volunteers, and an ability to evaluate and report results. A group that really gets that sustainability is about more than money – that doesn’t happen every day!

Later, we did an exercise to demonstrate that for sustainability, capacity needs to be:

  • The right kind of capacity
  • In sufficient amounts to get the job done, and
  • Aligned with who you are (identity) and who you work with or on behalf of (constituents)

The conversation turned to what it’s like when aspects of capacity aren’t aligned. Like when your strategy – say, engaging your core constituents as volunteers to further your education program’s reach – is disconnected from your systems – like the same program lacking a volunteer management system (application, orientation, database, etc.).

It was this “disconnect” discussion that I found so interesting. Most groups understand that their capacity needs to be aligned in concept – but this group dove deep and was able to articulate how these kinds of disconnections could become a real detriment to sustainability. As one gentleman said (paraphrasing):

“It’s like how if you really want to be seen as accessible to the community, but when a community member calls and gets an automated answering service; they don’t feel like they are a part of what you are doing.”

Yes, exactly. That automated answering service is a bad choice for a community-serving organization that wants community members to reach out and become involved (and whose sustainability depends on that happening). And it might be a really good tool for a group that wants to signal that it is professional, formal, or technology-based. The capacity you need depends upon your identity and your constituents. Form follows function.

Sustainability does require money. But, sometimes addressing the disconnects and increasing the attention you pay to aligning your capacity makes the biggest impact. Best wishes for your important work, New Mexico!