Rethinking Sustainability: Three Pieces of Advice

We are nearing the one-year mark of one of the most volatile spans in our lifetimes. Volatility always means there are winners and losers – and unfortunately, the people and causes the nonprofit sector fights for are usually the first harmed.

Because our sector picks up the broken pieces and broken promises, we are continually responding to the external forces that affect our communities.  So, how do we sustain our ability to respond to rapidly changing environments?

Prioritize Agility

Sustainability means…prioritizing flexibility and speed.

Organizations that embrace agility have good data to make better decisions, faster.  A couple of years ago, Jeff Bezos said “the only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that’s it.”  This has never been more true.  Agility requires a deep understanding of how resources are allocated and what each program and revenue stream really costs. Leadership teams need to understand the organizational control panel, and what each lever does.

This is likely why we’re seeing so many organizations investing their time in our Fuel Series Workshops this year.  A leadership team that has dedicated time to building their revenue infrastructure and aligning around a common language, framework, and strategy is better prepared to respond quickly.

Listen Deliberately

Sustainability means…identifying opportunities (and roadblocks) faster.

This means we have to ask better questions.  We need to ask those we serve what they are seeing and what they will need. We must ask our partners what they are excited to invest in. And ask our peers in other sectors and causes what they see and how they are responding.  And most importantly, we have to actually listen.

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant gives this advice: “Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.” That’s what high-performing organizations and leaders consistently do.  Over the last month, I have visited with each of our R-Squared Peer Groups – cohorts filled with nonprofit leaders who see the value of getting input from peers.  It is exciting to witness this extraordinary community of listeners forming.

Find the White Space

Sustainability means … carving out a unique identity.

It is difficult to be agile in a crowded space, so find a pond with some room to swim.  As an example, I think of a small upstart, Dollar For, that wanted to eliminate medical debt and found a way to serve people whose debt hadn’t reached collection agencies yet. That was white space (as evidenced by their explosion on social media this past month).  Finding the white space means listening, but it also requires a deep understanding of the root causes of the problem you want to solve and the existing approaches and players working to fix it.

So, how can organizations continue to meet this moment and sustain their ability to respond?  Prioritize agility, listen deliberately, and find the white space.