What Is Organizational Sustainability?

Sustainability can have multiple dimensions and meanings, including the ability to last and to use resources without depleting or damaging them (Hollingworth, 2009). For my purposes here, I am defining organizational sustainability for social change organizations as the ability to not merely persist but to thrive indefinitely and not to fall apart or peter out over time. Not depleting or damaging its resources is one dimension of such an organization’s ability to last and flourish, but it is not the only one. Any characteristic of an organization that depletes or sabotages the organization or its intended work can be considered a sustainability issue. After exploring various dimensions of organizational sustainability, first inside the organization and then in relation to its programs or initiatives and the community at large, I find that all the dimensions of sustainability I identify seem to boil down to a single point: action derives from communication which stems from relationships, and it all starts with basic openness, the ability of all people to perceive reality accurately, and which is unfortunately easily obscured by habit and circumstance.

I have plenty of experience with what is and is not sustainable on the job, and that leads me to consider sustainability within the organization as primary. I left a job at a non-profit when I could no longer stand the stress I experienced working there, due to the frenetic pace of work that was expected and other factors. Not surprisingly, employee well-being is one of Hollingworth’s key elements of organizational sustainability (2009). A lack of employee well-being stems fundamentally from leadership not recognizing what workload or working style is appropriate to employees, not listening their feedback, or not being willing to make changes – a breakdown of communication and openness.

Another job exposed me to additional sustainability issues of institutional sexism, racism and lack of power sharing due to a mostly homogeneous leadership who did not meaningfully solicit feedback or try to involve a wider group of staff in decision-making. These issues probably stemmed from the leadership’s impression that their own ideas and perspectives were sufficient and accurate and from their lack of questioning and of seeking others’ involvement and opinions. As York underscores, the ability of leaders to include and involve others has a great impact on staff’s sense of ownership and pride, their well-being, and on the quality of the decisions leadership is able to make (2009). All these aspects involve leadership’s ability to form relationships, engage other staff, and communicate. 

The more that is explicit and clear within an organization as opposed to unconscious, unspoken, or assumed, the more sustainable that organization seems to be. In this way Oxfam GB found that many of their staff held unspoken, often unconscious theories of social change which made it difficult for them to work together when they disagreed on strategies (Eyben, Kidder, Rowlands & Bronstein, 2008). Values and theories provide the “why” behind strategies and actions for social change (or any actions, perhaps), so people cannot come to a true understanding of each other’s choices unless they understand their reasons for trusting certain actions or strategies over others.

Another aspect of an entire organization working together is understanding, sharing and demonstrating a set of shared social values, as evidenced by Lacor Hospital in Uganda, where staff embodied the hospital’s foundational values and modeled them to new employees (Hauck, 2004). Other organizations find that they can best support their mission by hiring people whose personal values closely match those already chosen by members of the organization (Kilby, 2006). Making the implicit explicit is accomplished through internal questioning and communal discussion, meaning that this aspect also relies on communication and relationships.

An organization that is functioning sustainably on the inside is therefore in the best position to undertake sustainable social change work, because the same foundations of communication and relationship apply externally. If it is unproductive for leadership to make decisions without sufficient input from other staff, it follows that an NGO should never initiate strategies to help a community without input and involvement from that community. Unfortunately, however, it seems that this is the exception to the rule (Baser & Morgan, 2008; Eyben, Kidder, Rowlands & Bronstein, 2008; Reeler, 2007; Swidler & Watkins, 2008).

An in-depth case-study of development efforts in Malawi show not only the development efforts’ failure to be sustainable, but their negative effects on all strata of Malawian society involved. This is ironic because the reason the projects failed to work was the funders’ own insistence that the project be “sustainable.” But the funders’ notion of what would create consistent and long-term economic growth was not appropriate to the situation in Malawi, and therefore the NGO’s efforts were ineffective in achieving its goals (Swidler & Watkins, 2008).

My favorite example of an organization working in tandem with its key stakeholders is that of the NGO “SNDT” in India, whose key stakeholders saw great empowerment and improvement in their lives on their own terms. SNDT staff met with representatives from the key stakeholders monthly and “all program and organizational issues were discussed” (Kilby, 2006, p. 957). It seems that the best results come about when an NGO partners with the community on equal terms, does not impose an agenda on the community and instead provides the resources for the community to develop or act on their own agenda (Reeler, 2007). The biggest challenge to a community-driven approach is its incompatibility with funders’ agendas and requirements. But is it even worth carrying out development work any other way?

It seems to me that at the bottom of all these sustainability dimensions of communication and relationship lies openness – to oneself, to ideas, and to others. From openness springs the ability to learn, to change, and to consider new ideas. With openness, we realize when we are not in harmony with our surroundings or other people. When we hold rigidly onto our ideas, we miss reality.

Missing reality is fundamentally the problem Reeler talks about in his paper, “A Three-fold Theory of Social Change,” where he proposes a three-pronged theory of social change he feels is closer to reality and advocates for taking the time to truly understand the social reality with which you are working (2007). It is also the problem Oxfam GB tried to address when they brought working groups together to discuss their personal theories of change and those theories’ relation to social change strategies (Eyben, Kidder, Rowlands & Bronstein, 2008).

Openness to others, and therefore relationship, is what allows the leaders of an organization to involve everyone in decision-making processes, and thereby empower its staff, impart a sense of ownership, and make decisions based on a fuller understanding. Relationship is how NGOs find out what the poor need to make their lives better, and what the best strategies might be to achieve that better life in their society. So at its very root, sustainability is opening, noticing, seeing, and connecting, to reality, to oneself and to others, in order to plot the best path forward, together.

Originally written on February 8, 2017, for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


Baser, H., & Morgan, P. (2008). Capacity, Change and Performance: Insights and Implications for Development Cooperation. Maastricht: ECDPM. www.ecdpm.org/pmb21

Eyben, R., Kidder, T., Rowlands, J., & Bronstein, A. (2008). Thinking About Change for Development Practice: A Case Atudy from Oxfam GB. Development in Practice18(2), 201-212.

Hauck, V. (2004). Resilience and High Performance Amidst Conflict, Epidemics and Extreme Poverty: The Lacor Hospital, Northern Uganda. Maastricht: ECDPM.

Hollingworth, M. (2009). Building 360 Organizational Sustainability. Ivey Business Journal73(6), 2.

Kilby, P. (2006). Accountability for Empowerment: Dilemmas Facing Non-Governmental Organizations. World Development34(6), 951-963.

Reeler, D. (2007). A Three-fold Theory of Social Change. Community Development.

Swidler, A., & Watkins, S. C. (2009). “Teach a Man to Fish”: The Sustainability Doctrine and Its Social Consequences. World Development37(7), 1182-1196.

York, P. (2009). The Sustainability Formula: How Nonprofit Organizations Can Thrive in the Emerging Economy. TCC Group, 3.