Sustainability: we all say it, but what does it mean?

A new paper by PSJP, Understanding Sustainability puts some substance to the concept of sustainability by talking to a group of diverse organizations from the fields of development and philanthropy about what they mean by it. It’s a worthwhile and timely exercise because, as the paper points out in its introduction, sustainability has become a catchword. If we hear that something is sustainable, we automatically assume it’s good without further examination. It puts our minds at ease without telling us much. We might assume among other things that if a project or initiative is sustainable, it can pay for itself (it’s financially sustainable), it does no harm to the planet (environmentally sustainable – definitions now understandably lay stress on this aspect), it enjoys wide acceptance (socially sustainable) and, in general, that it’s capable of enduring. Most often, what we assume is an uncertain combination of some or all of these.

Using the PSJP paper as a starting point, let’s have a closer look. Organizations like the ones in the report see their work as intending to produce lasting change, rather than responding to a short-term need – a Romanian organization, for instance, works with young people to prevent them dropping out of school which in the long run, they hope, will help to break a cycle of poverty and deprivation. To help engineer that kind of change, they will need to be around for a while. First, because, as everyone knows, change happens slowly and, second, if gains are made, it’s very easy to lose them again if they are not sufficiently long-lived to become entrenched. So these organisations have to be sustainable. If – as is very likely – their support comes from external donors, it should take the form of multi-year grants. From the point of view of the organisations, that’s the most important thing to say.

It’s worth adding that ‘sustainable’ here needs a qualification that is often not made. There is the intervention, the organisation implementing it and the longer-term change it’s trying to bring about. These might at times be identical or overlap or at any rate be easily confused, but the first two are the means, the last, the end. While the organization or initiative needs an extended life to help bring about this change, it’s important to recognize that its existence is secondary to what it is offering. It has to be ‘sustainable’ for as long as it is needed. It doesn’t have to last forever. This raises questions for the organization to ponder. It’s easy for them to become identified with a particular change or initiative. When is their work done? Institutions as well as individuals want to continue to be what they are. When should they rethink their purpose? At what point does their ‘sustainability’ require the capacity to adapt, rather than to cling to their accustomed form?

Sustainability is likely to be compound of their competence to carry out the task, their capacity to attract funds and their ability to inspire confidence in their constituency. These are mutually dependent and they are all important, but the third probably takes pride of place.

The need to realize that you are the instrument, rather than the end-product is especially relevant to initiatives when the change sought is a change in the behaviour or capabilities of the community where the project operates – and this is the case with many of the projects who are the subject of the paper. In addition to the views of the 14 organizations who took part in the webinars on which the paper is mainly based, also included are the results of a survey of 52 projects which had received grants from one funder who had established an evaluation system to measure the extent of sustainable change their grants had produced. Out of the 52, the thing that was most conducive to sustainability was the use of community assets. In other words, the true test of a project or organization’s capacity to create enduring change is the extent to which the communities in which and whose behalf it works are prepared to invest in it.

To illustrate the importance of this, consider the experience of one of the organizations in Asia Pacific. It employs three distinct ways of working. The first involves having its own staff delivering a project conceived by a donor in a community. The second involves building the capacity of the community to run the project themselves, but dependent on donor funding. The third method involves leveraging community assets to run the project through a microfinance scheme. By far the most successful of these models is the third. Five years later, between 80 and 90 per cent of projects in that category were still running, whereas in the first case, practically nothing remained.

Another way of securing community ‘buy-in’, in the widest sense of the term, is simply being there. As one respondent put it, if organizations are to survive, they need to ‘be present and have the trust of the community’. And – though it seems obvious to say so – the intended beneficiaries need to benefit. They also need to participate. Participation develops their skills and sense of ownership. Some organizations, especially if they work in relatively small communities take pains to ensure continuity between one project and another.

Webinar participants had other interesting things to say about sustainability. As we’ve seen, social change organizations are operating close to the ground and the attitude of local communities is critical to their survival. That of governments can be, too. If governments are hostile to the NGO sector generally, it can hinder their ability to work or even to survive. As a Romanian respondent pointed out ‘I worry that sustainability also depends on how much the government invests in the sustainability of NGOs and whether it lets them function and exist.’

The second observation is one that echoed a recent post on this site on leadership. If an organization is to survive, the quality of leadership is important, but so is the continued well-being of the people involved. Those working in small social change organizations are often doing so under mental and emotional stress and, as Bernie Dolley remarked in the previous post, the burden can become too heavy.

What do these observations tell external donors about how to help organizations become sustainable? The last point reminds us of the key factor which has already been observed – they should support organizations, rather than interventions and they should support not only their technical capacity and their structural strength, but also take into account the human frailties of those involved.

And especially avoid single-focus programmes, say participants. Donors tend to like these because they are an easier sell to board members. They seem to offer the promise of concentrating, rather than dispersing resources and it’s easier to tie them to an existing area of a funder’s work. Actually, say those who contributed to the paper, it’s hard to make them sustainable. What’s needed is a holistic, ‘community-driven approach’. Another enemy of sustainability is the mania for innovation – donors like this, but it ignores the fact that there might be good work already going on which it would be worthwhile to develop.

A final point on this. A grantmaker (who had better remain nameless) once told me that, to make a grant to an organization without either bank account or official sanction, he flew into a country (also better not named) with the amount of the grant in cash tucked in his socks and concealed on other parts of his person (luckily, it wasn’t a large grant). While this might seem to be an extreme case, donors should be prepared to bend the rules, especially in situations where they are dealing with small, informal groups which don’t have the status or amenities that a larger group might, but which – crucially – are close to the ground funders want to work on.

Back to where we started. The term ‘sustainability’ is like a piece of elastic – if you stretch it too far, too often, it either loses its virtue or it snaps. As the authors of this paper have done, I’d ask everyone in the sector to interrogate the idea of sustainability more closely. What particular form of sustainability are they looking for and what does it consist of?

And if it’s sustainable social change you’re looking for, set all equivocation aside. What really matters is that the community gets it.


Andrew Milner is a freelance writer, researcher and editor specializing in the areas of philanthropy and civil society. He is a consultant to Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. He is also a regular contributor to, and associate editor of, Alliance magazine.

One thought on “Sustainability: we all say it, but what does it mean?

  1. This sums up perfectly the difficulty that NGOs face when asked by donors about the sustainability of a project. For us at Yayasan Usaha Mulia, in Indonesia, many of our projects seek long-term changes such as breaking a family’s cycle of poverty – and this takes a holistic approach from the baby’s health, the employability of a child graduating from high school up to the wellbeing of the grandparents. Providing short term funding in return for long-term impact and changes is almost impossible.

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