Sustainability as a Mindset

Just as leadership is a process, not a position, sustainability is a mindset — an orientation — that can be cultivated only by engaging everyone in dual-bottom-line thinking, strategy development, and decision making.

Zimmerman & Bell, The Sustainability Mindset


This has nothing to do with environmental sustainability. So, if you clicked the headline hoping for that, sorry. But, stick around, the sustainability I hope to communicate is just as important. If you didn’t read part one of this series, check that out first.

What is sustainability? If your work is dependent on you to continue, it is not sustainable. If the continuing work of an organization is dependent on one person’s output, it is not sustainable. If one organization is dependent upon a single entry point of revenue, human and/or financial, it is not sustainable. As global nonprofits continue to work toward enacting global change at a micro level, the questions we ask about successful outcomes, in regards to sustainability, can’t be a line item in the strategic goals.

The thread of sustainability must weave through every fiber of the greater strategic tapestry to enable a true shift in mindset. It is not a goal, but rather a lens through which to view every initiative, every program, every budget.

Looking at sustainability and strategy, defining the real-world difference between strategy and strategic planning is necessary:

“Ironically, true strategy formation is not a role traditional strategic planning very often plays. In our research we most often heard strategic planning described by participants as a tool for team building. ‘It’s a way to get everyone on the same page.’ several interviewees said. That is, strategic planning is intended for the setting of annual goals by work groups, and for communication of the leadership’s intentions, rather than as a process to form, adjust, and implement the organizational strategies that will carry out those intentions. This purpose makes sense, since the traditional strategic planning is better suited to team building than to the formation of strategy.” — La Piana, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

La Piana, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

This paragraph gives great context to the importance of sustainability in all aspects of program planning strategy. Viewing something this crucial as a separate program in itself will handicap any true gains in sustainability over the long term.

My work has an intense focus on Mexico. With Mexico’s recent ascent in both global trade and GDP, it is experiencing amazing growth in many areas leading to a growing upper middle class. In cities such as Monterrey in the northern state of Nuevo León, the per capita GDP was over $27,000 USD annually in the most recently reported year of 2010. To view this in context of States north of the border, Nuevo León would rank similar to South Carolina and Arkansas.

Economic Overview of Nuevo Leon

While there is still great need and much infrastructure to be built, what this increase in national Mexican resources means for sustainability is that there are tools at all NGOs’ disposal’s within the local community that did not necessarily exist a decade ago. To dismiss this massive shift on the ground, and continue with programs and planning unchanged will prove costly and painful in the long term. Potentially, it will lead to a growing disparity between what is being done and what should be done.

One of the main push backs to a focus on sustainability is fear of alienating American donors who feel devalued. Communicating to foreign donors that their investments are still necessary and impactful while progressively driving sustainability as a core strategy can be a scary endeavor. What is working? What is not? What data are we looking at to know this?

What if we approached and marketed sustainability as a partnership as opposed to being a mutually exclusive zero-sum game? Foreign donors should not exclude local sustainability and vice versa. I believe a strong partnership between sustainability and foreign donors could form to become a juggernaut in long term change where it has historically been so hard to enact.

Many people love to use the term “a hand up, not a hand out.” Shifting mindsets such as in marketing to share the stories of how short term investment in sustainability can lead to long term payoffs personifies this perfectly. If funds are being poured into staff and towards initiatives designed to assist people, why wouldn’t first world donors want to come alongside this vision were it communicated to them? If we were to refer to the old adage of being fed a fish versus learning to fish, the answer feels clear.

Mexico’s growth of national wealth and education opens the door to build a cohesive local partnership independent of the inevitable strings of control that come with foreign funding. Removing this often unseen burden will amplify the work foreign organizations do through better engagement and buy in. As these changes take root at a cultural level, programming and resources increase in both scope and impact while slowly moving away from external intervention.

This is not to say there cannot or should not be long term partnership across borders, but that authority is given where authority is. Being willing to set aside pride and control goes a long way in building trusting relationships in the long term. As that trust grows, nationals are able to then work through what is best for each country, each state, each city, each family, each child individually. Through accountability, this then should be found within every program and outcome at an executional level.


So what does it look like to begin to build sustainability as a core strategy and not an end goal?

This depends heavily on what your organization does, where it currently lies on the sustainability spectrum, etc. However, here are a few good places to start.

Firstly, purposefully build into local volunteers and staff to enable trust and true feedback. By empowering them to begin making decisions and living through the consequences while training them in leadership agility, we help model sustainable work practices.

Secondly, pursue and engage local advocates as a core process of each program within the strategic plan. In the long term, this would look like staff of each program being fully educated in creating local networks and connections to bring strength to the long term viability of the program they are engaged in. In the short term, this may be a single person overseeing and pursuing relationships for all programs in a city or country to drive sustainability forward.

Lastly, ask the question, “How is this sustainable?” at every level of planning and execution for each strategic goal, process and output.