Sustainability 101

In Sustainability by Karen Buck

Remember playing telephone when you were young? One person would whisper a phrase into the ear of the person sitting next to them and so on down the line. By the time the message reached the last kid in line, the phrase had morphed into something you and your friends usually found pretty hilarious.

Wasn’t playing telephone fun?

But, it’s kind of sad when the same thing happens to a word as important as sustainability. Quite often, we hear sustainability discussed as synonymous with funding. That definition is short-sighted and it does a disservice to the root of the concept.

We’d like to offer our definition for your consideration.

In the context of organizational development, sustainability means:

  • Having the human, financial, technological, and organizational resources to provide services to meet needs and attain results towards mission on an ongoing basis
  • Sustainability requires the organizational and programmatic infrastructure to carry out core functions independent of individuals or one-time opportunities

Use these three questions to help define the term for your organization and clarify what building a more sustainable operation would entail:

  1. What exactly are we trying to sustain? (Staff positions, core functions, a certain level of service, etc.)
  2. How much money will it take to sustain that? (now and in the long term)
  3. To what extent does our operating environment support what we are trying to sustain? (Operating environment   includes our internal infrastructure / support and the larger, external environment in which we operate)

What do you think of our definition? What does sustainability mean to you?