Social Change

What Is Organizational Sustainability in Practice?

Reflections after a semester’s worth of inquiry into the theory and practice of organizational sustainability via the methodology of action research.

Sustainability, or the practice of continuously searching for equilibrium—in an organization, in an ecosystem, or in one’s own life—is better facilitated through some methodologies than others. Dealing with the nature of reality requires us to let go of certain theories of change management: those based on concepts that do not mesh with the complexity of real-life situations. This note is especially relevant to social change organizations attempting to work with the entirety of complex situations rather than simply produce some type of product. There is a fundamental difference between working with social systems and producing a product, which suggests why many theories of management and planning from the private sector do not work well when applied to social change efforts, whether undertaken by small, local coalitions or international non-governmental organizations.

The methodologies of the private sector are not meant to garner social change or succeed in a world where there is no predictability and no one has control. Complex problems and social systems, like racism or environmental degradation, have no real boundaries. In working with them, simple linear causality does not exist, unintended consequences are common, the entire picture is too complex for any one person to grasp, and individuals are by no means a passive cog in the system but tend to act according to their own wants and needs (Mowles, 2010).

Working with social systems requires working effectively with others, so sustainability comes about through not only investigating and understanding the system but also through cooperation, negotiation, and by extension, politics (Mowles, 2010). Mowles (2010) writes:

In modern societies we exist amid very long chains of interdependent people, which make it very difficult, for individuals, or even groups of individuals to bring about long term, enduring change, which emerges rather as a result of the unintended, unplanned consequences of the tissues of interweaving intentions. (p. 155)

In other words, not only is reality in a constant state of flux but in pursuing social change, activists must work with others to adapt to this complexity. The path forward is a constant, complex negotiation between a multitude of conflicting wants and needs of individuals and groups.

Organizations and individuals need methods of working with themselves and others to form a consensus about what is real, what sustainability means, and what the best path forward is in any given situation. Some consensus, or adequate “commitment throughout the organization” (Rogers, 2012, p. 30) is necessary for people to work together towards sustainability. Wals and Schwarzin (2012) describe “dialogic interaction” as “reflexive conversation and engagement among a heterogeneous group of people, who attempt to explore a diversity of potentially incompatible perspectives in a mutually respectful, trusting and collaborative way” (p. 16) as one way to become a learning community and deal effectively with change. Dialogic interaction with others includes empathetic listening, suspension of judgement, avoiding interrupting others, thinking before speaking, slowing down, honestly expressing one’s true opinions, and being willing to experience the dissonance of conflicting ideas such that the members of the group can eventually adopt new, more appropriate ways of thinking that take into account others’ perspectives (Wals & Schwarzin, 2012). Self-reflection or reflexivity is key to this process as well, as is the desire to respect others. So to is an understanding of one’s own and others’ identities and values, which in turn inform our individual actions (Rogers, 2012).

Leadership takes on highly collaborative dimensions in the areas of social change management and organizational sustainability. Rogers (2012) describes the need for a leader to create a story to guide change but says that consensus surrounding this story is necessary. Achieving consensus implies a dialogic process such as that previously described, that brings together many people’s opposing viewpoints and negotiates between them. Mowles (2010) acknowledges that management practices attempting to improve people’s quality of life “must rely on the potential for being constantly destabilised by the desires, ambitions and changing interests of those it seeks to support” (Mowles, 2010, p. 156). Organizational leaders must negotiate change on all fronts, both amidst the people with whom they work and those for whom they work.

For leaders in processes of social change, theories such as Reeler’s (2007) distinction between emergent, transformative and projectable change try to accurately reflect the nature of reality in social change efforts. But as Reeler himself points out, theory cannot be allowed to blind oneself to reality, which must be approached directly through empirical research and critical inquiry (Mowles, 2010). Theories help, but they do not replace the long and difficult process of making meaning of complex situations and negotiating a consensus with others to chart a path forward, together.

Three individuals join together in working towards social change in the picture above. Thanks to dialogic interaction, they work through their differences, share and debate their ideas and open to new understandings. Together, they follow a shared sustainability inquiry into a situation that is struggling to be sustainable, perhaps following a process like that listed on the left.

Originally written on May 20, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


Mowles, C. (2010). Post-foundational development management—power, politics and complexity. Public Administration and Development, 30, 149-158. DOI: 10.1002/pad.563

Reeler, D. (2007). A three-fold theory of social change and implications for practice, planning, monitoring and evaluation. Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Developmental Practice (CDRA). 

Rogers, K. (2012). Exploring our ecological selves within learning organizations. The Learning Organization, 19(1), 28-37.

Wals, A. & Schwarzin, L. (2012). Fostering organizational sustainability through dialogic interaction.The Learning Organization, 19(1), 11-27.

Branding as Storytelling

A Story for Social Change

Half a century after the civil rights movement, civil rights still are not a reality for all Americans. Many of us still long for a day when all peoples and cultures in the United States and indeed, the world over, are appreciated, valued, and respected, with equal access to health, wealth, education, and the other human and civil rights. In order to make this a reality, I call upon all white Americans such as myself to examine the ways in which we participate in our culture’s marginalization of people of color and learn as much as we can about how to stop participating in it.

The history of anti-racist activism in Americans of European heritage extends to the days of slavery and beyond, when some white people saw that despite others’ claims to the contrary, human exploitation and the denial of some peoples’ humanity would leave deep and lasting wounds in our country. No matter whose side our ancestors were on, when they arrived on the American continent, whether they fit in when they came or struggled to assimilate themselves into the Anglo-Saxon mainstream, this history of resistance and commitment to justice belongs to all of us, and we can join it at any time.

As liberal white people, we tend to reinforce comforting beliefs that the racism operating in this country is separate from ourselves, that we have nothing to do with it. I remember growing up being vaguely aware of racism as a sort of undercurrent in our society but never as something in any way related to myself, until one day two years ago I had an experience that hasn’t left me since. I was at a meditation center I frequented regularly at the time. A particular woman who I knew was a member of the center was there that day, who was black. Most of the people who frequented the center were white. I remember this woman as tall and dignified, dressed like a man in jeans and a flannel collared tee-shirt. In the comfortable, elegant community room that day, I became aware that I was not relating to her the way I related to the other white people: I was experiencing an overload of mental activity regarding her, though I could not at the time make out the contents of my mind or hear what my thoughts were saying. I was aware of my discomfort, yet fearful she would notice my awkwardness, panicked at the certitude it was wrong for me to feel this way, and all the while trying to appear on the surface as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on with me.

I couldn’t verbalize what this experience was about at the time, but the racial element was clear enough to me that when I saw a pamphlet in the very same meditation center on a program called UNtraining White Liberal Racism, I took it. Without telling anyone I knew, I applied for the program. I didn’t know what was happening to me or how to talk about it, or with whom. No one around me had ever really talked about racism, especially not in a personal way, other than my mom referring to some of my grandmother’s comments as racist. Come to think of it, though, it’s because of my grandmother that I knew what racism sounded like: it sounded like an elderly woman who lived in a charming apartment complex with a swimming pool, whom I adored visiting, exclaiming how unbelievable it was that a woman who was black had the nerve to apply for a job in the office where my grandmother worked when this woman pronounced the word “ask” as “ax.” My grandmother vociferated on and on about this affront to the English language as we drove along the straight two lane highway between fields outside of the quiet city of Woodland near our state’s capitol; if we had suggested to her that her reaction came from a bias against black people as well as the widespread belief amongst whites that only her version of English was acceptable, she surely would have denied it, but it could only have been so. 

But if I knew at the time that was racism and I didn’t agree with it, then how could I possibly be finding racism in myself so many year later? For that’s surely what that reaction I had to the black woman in the meditation center was. It wasn’t hatred or dislike that I felt, yet it was still a problem, and it interfered with my ability to relate to this woman as she was. And relating to people as they are, not through any lens or film of preconception or judgement, was my goal in life – that was why I meditated and went to hear Buddhist teachings, so that I could perceive the world straightforwardly and act appropriately and move beyond my fear of others. And then there was the wider reality – the community discussions that started happening within this meditation community, the revelation that people of color didn’t feel welcome, that although they came seeking what the white people sought, and tried to make a place for themselves, they eventually often gave up and left, disappointed. An insight formed in my mind that there was some link between my experience of confusion in the presence of that woman, and the reason why people like her didn’t stick around. Furthermore, I knew, if I as a white person had experiences like that, I couldn’t be the only one.

So I came to the UNtraining seeking answers. And what I found there was more than I could have hoped for. Through the program’s preliminary offerings – monthly workshops with a small group of other white people committed to breaking down the barriers racism had formed in them – I learned a lot, but most of all, I learned of the possibility of a community founded on self-learning and an understanding of white conditioning and how it functions, as well as how our deep-seated personal insecurities and beliefs come into play. This is what allows me to believe in the future of our country.


The practice of writing personal stories can be very useful, as they play an important role in leadership and in galvanizing support for a cause (Ganz, 2009). 

As Woodside (2010) explains, stories contain indices, details other people can connect to their own experiences. I tried to include these details in the above story by describing the specificity of events – the car ride with my grandmother though fields outside of Woodland, the way the woman was dressed in the meditation center. I think I could do even more, adding temperatures, smells, lighting, and other details.

The next element of a story, the inciting incident of “why and how life changes” (Woodside, 2010, p. 535), is the profoundly destabilizing experience I had in the meditation center, which threw into question what I thought I knew about racism and its relation to myself.

The last part of a story, where the protagonist tries to restore balance, coming into conflict with reality in the process, and struggles with obstacles both internal and external, is not as clear in what I wrote above, and I think I could do better. I do think I touched on some obstacles in my own understanding of racism that were put into question by my experience.

The resolution of the story comes when the protagonist eventually finds truth in some form, which I certainly did at a certain point during my participation in UNtraining workshops. The protagonist’s actions in the process reveal his or her unconscious essence, which I would say in this case is my ongoing quest for truth and true communion with other human beings.

Stories can be used as a form of branding, and a very useful one in that they are the perfect vehicle for communicating values, the baseline of any social change organization’s brand (or any social change human’s brand). Kylander & Stone (2012) clarify that a brand is not so much a logo, catchphrase, or name but rather, “a psychological construct held in the minds of all those aware of the branded product, person, organization, or movement” (p. 38). In personal terms this brings me to thinking of the difference between outward appearance and inward values in terms of communicating who we are. Integrity exists when the outward appearance in an expression of the inward values. This is not doubt why I have never managed to wear makeup consistently: even though I think it makes me look much better, and even though marketing and social pressure make me think that I ought to wear it, my inner value of showing up exactly as I am and not hiding my faults or blemishes, as well as that of putting all my waking hours into productive and useful pursuits, keeps asserting itself and interfering with my attempts to portray a prettier-than-life face to the world.

Storytelling as branding is incredibly helpful for garnering support and raising money, as shared by Ganz (2009) and Fischer, Wilsker, and Young (2010). Development or fundraising works hand-in-hand with marketing and communications to tell an organization’s story. I do see myself someday occupying a role in an organization where I would be engaged in fundraising - even if I were not to continue as a development professional, leadership in any organization would be foolish to leave the fundraising entirely to those hired for that purpose. This is especially true because I am more likely to be drawn to working with a public service nonprofit than a private service one, which as Fischer, Wilsker and Young’s 2010 study finds, would most likely rely heavily on contributions.

Branding for the person or organization oriented towards social good needs to be part of participatory strategic planning process, not a top-down decree (Kylander & Stone, 2012). Policing the brand is antithetical to nonprofit missions of community involvement and empowerment, so brands need to be built on a clear understanding of the values of the various stakeholders involved, including employees (Stride & Lee, 2007). In personal terms, the top-down decree could be symbolized by capitulating to mainstream values or social pressure to be a certain way that’s different from the way you really are. For organizations, the process can be further complicated by the amount of people involved, but the same concept of needing to discover and articulate who you really are applies. The good news is that as humans – and groups of humans – we are never alone in who we are. We do not need to necessarily adapt to the way others want us to be; we simply need to find those to whom our true self appeals.

But finding our true self – finding what’s real – can be a bit of a process, especially when we have to sort through our culture’s limiting, conflicting messages. Sometimes we end up trying on identities to see how they fit, usually with little success. Similarly, Kylander & Stone (2012) and Stride & Lee (2007) share that brand can’t be all talk with nothing behind it – the quality or values have to back it, and these are part of the brand. The value system is fundamental. This reminds me of the way adolescents try on different personas. Brand is built off who you are, not the other way around, because you can’t change who you are! And this is true of organizations like it is of individuals. Internal identity must be aligned with external image which much be aligned with the mission (Kylander & Stone, 2012). Not being aligned, or trying to be something you’re not, is painful and exhausting. Part of the process of growing up is realizing who you are and renouncing trying to be or appear as something else.

I find that knowing who I am is quite liberating. When I know who I am, I don’t get confused when others project inaccurate identities on me. But when others misunderstand what I’m about, it could be that I’m not doing a good job of projecting who I am (my fault), or it could be that others are unable to see me (their fault). In other words, if your brand does not reflect the image held in the minds of stakeholders, it could mean there is something wrong with your brand (Kylander & Stone, 2012), that you’re trying to project something you clearly aren’t, or you haven’t done enough to express who or what you are.

I remember a time when I was quite young, perhaps ten years old, when a man I didn’t know referred to me as a “little girl.” I responded angrily that “I am not a little girl!” I was probably aware that technically speaking, I was a little girl – I was a girl, and I was young. But I think I was responding to what I perceived as disparagement in his voice, his perception of me as young, female, very blond at the time, and therefore perhaps, in his mind, physically and mentally weak. It seems unlikely that this person would have called me a “little boy” had I been one. It was crystal clear to me at the time that this perception clashed with who I knew I was, my own feelings of determination, strength, and biting intelligence that just didn’t quite know how to express itself yet.

Therefore, just as important as it is for an organization to find a way to appeal to funders, clients, and volunteers alike (Pope, Isely, & Asamoa-Tutu, 2009), it is key to find the right populations to target for those relationships and not invest in people who don’t have the ability to understand you. We know that there are like-minded people out there; those are the people to whom we need to express who we are (our brand) in order to build the partnerships to carry out our vision of social change.

Originally written on April 14, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


Ganz, M. (2009). Why stories matter. Sojourners magazine38(3), 16. Retrieved from:

Pope, J., Isely, E. & Asamoa-Tutu, F. (2009). Developing a marketing strategy for nonprofit organization: An exploratory study. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 21(2), 184–201.DOI: 10.1080/10495140802529532 

Kylander, N. & Stone, C. (2012). The role of brand in the nonprofit sector. Stanford Social Innovation ReviewSpring, 36-41. Retrieved from: 

Stride, H. & Lee, S. (2007). No logo? No way. Branding in the non-profit sector. Journal of Marketing Managemen,. 23(1-2), 107-122. DOl: 10.1362/026725707X178585 

Woodside, A. (2010). Brand-consumer storytelling theory and research: Introduction to a Psychology & Marketingspecial issue. Psychology & Marketing27(6), 531–540. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20342 

Fischer, R., Wilsker, A. & Young, D. (2010). Exploring the revenue mix of nonprofit organizations: Does it relate to publicness?Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,XX(X), 1-20. DOI: 10.1177/0899764010363921

Moving Mindfully into Action Research

What follows are some notes on recent readings and how they apply to the action research/consulting process.

As it happened, I had created an agenda for my action research team’s first meeting in which I allocated 15 minutes for 1) answering fun questions, 2) discussing the strengths and weaknesses we each bring to the group, 3) sharing the roles we would prefer to play in the group and 4) talking about how we would like to work together as a group in terms of communication, working styles, values, and decision-making. I thought the exercise would be important for me, but not necessarily for anyone else, as I tend to assume others have better social skills than me and would automatically just pick all these things up. After reading Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry, though, I decided I was wrong. I realized that a conscious effort of getting to know each other benefits everyone. By understanding each other better, we would work together better as a team. 

The simplest message to take from Humble Inquiry is that we really do need to get to know the people we work with on a personal level. This message is important and easily applicable to my project group process and to our work with our client organization. But Schein’s analysis of the type of communication he is referring to as “humble inquiry” is not such an easy one to implement. It is actually quite difficult to ask a humble question. But I think taking the general attitude of not knowing – which at this point is easy for me because I have no experience with action research or consulting – will enable us to ask enough humble, open questions and will make the process of learning about our client organization’s sustainability challenges very fruitful.

Schein’s discussion of status and hierarchy I found very helpful. We generally avoid explicitly talking about such issues, yet they play a significant role in our interactions. My guess is that the representatives of our client organization could consider themselves to be of a higher status than us as students, because from the sound of it many are well-off, retired people who have past careers in high-powered corporate jobs, and they may be a little skeptical of what we have to say. I myself will probably feel some deference towards them because they are much older than I, which could conceivably be an obstacle for me in communicating with them freely.

I enjoyed Graham Duncan’s book chapter “Innovations in Appreciative Inquiry: Critical Appreciative Inquiry with Excluded Pakistani Women.” The methods for group work used in the chapter may or may not be applicable to our action research project, but will be helpful to consider when interacting with groups in the future. These methods include the establishment of rules to shape the space and conduct of the group and differentiate it from behavior outside the group, icebreakers or the opportunity to establish deeper relationships, self-revealing through storytelling, and discussing societal examples and norms as a means to critically engage with culture. I did like the positive emphasis of appreciative inquiry, and I would like to keep that in mind for the action research project. I think the idea of looking for “what gives life: the best of what is” (p. 56), which could counteract the tendency towards focusing on diagnosing problems and losing sight of the strengths the organization already possesses.

Bradley Huang’s article “What is good action research?: Why the resurgent interest?” was a good overview of the process. My group, in pulling together the terms of reference document, is in the process of articulating our objectives. It is our intention to fully partner with our organization and get their participation, although we have yet to discuss the events or exercises we would like to propose to them. Actionability is an important element, too, for we want to keep ourselves firmly grounded in the practical, here-and-now situation, not wishing we could implement some fantastic idea, if only the organization had more funding. I was very happy to read Bradley Huang’s view of reflexivity, especially in terms of including self-narrative and one’s own learning process as part of action research. The academic injunction against the first person singular bothers me because no matter how my paper is worded, I am always the one writing, so I should acknowledge that. Bringing oneself into the process allows for more self-awareness and for others to better understand my ideas, assumptions, and decisions. Finally, I thought her idea of significance, or the need for the research to contribute to “the flourishing of persons, communities, and the wider ecology” (98) could apply to our project. This idea reminded me that we should consider our organization’s place in the wider community, not just how it runs internally.

Lykes and Scheib, in their book chapter on emancipatory photovoice, discussed the challenges of doing action research with power imbalances at play. They pointed out the possibility and potential unhelpfulness of imposing your own way of doing things on a group process when there might be a different way more appropriate to the local people. In response to this idea I think it would be helpful to discuss, as a project group, what we want our ways of working and values to be, so that the dominant ones in our culture do not implicitly rule our process. Because I anticipate that the members of our client organization will hold greater status in society than our consulting group, I am not too worried about us imposing inappropriate processes on them. But it is helpful to be reminded that as a group process facilitator you have the power to impose your methods and values, and that the other people participating might let you get away with it. It is up to you to find out what methods are most familiar and appropriate to the group with which you are working.

I found Swantz’ book chapter “Participatory Action Research: Its Origins and Future in Women’s Ways” to be a very interesting perspective from someone who seems to have come to deeply understand a local context in which she lived for a long period of time. This article reads very differently than Lykes and Scheib’s article, because here the story the author is telling emerges vividly and vibrantly, straightforwardly, without being cloaked in a lot of self-consciously reflexive language. Unfortunately, for our action research project we cannot live for years with our client organization because we only have two months, but we can have the intention to dive in and immerse ourselves, be uncritical and see and hear everything. We can suspend what we think we know about how organizations should run or how the organization’s mission should be carried out. We can trust that by doing this, real and useful insight will emerge. 

I can liken this discovery of insight to the process of analyzing a piece of literature. As a student of French in college, I wrote many explications de texte where for the assignment I was given a surprisingly short passage and told to explicate it. These were always frightening assignments because when I sat down to begin, I had no idea what I would say, even if I had already read the text. It was only by going through the explication process, by asking questions of the text, by considering the vocabulary, the tone, how it was constructed, that meaning would emerge. And meaning always did emerge and (because we studied fabulous texts) the meanings were breathtaking – deep, moving, and stunningly beautiful. It is a process of discovery.

Hopefully, armed with these ideas and methods, we will embark on an action research process that will allow meanings to emerge from the mundane, and that whether inspiring or disappointing, those meanings will inspire change for the better.

Originally written on March 3, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.

My Playlist – and Yes, It Does Relate to Organizational Sustainability

My playlist:

  • Cheb Khalid – Oran وهران - A song about Cheb Khalid’s hometown of Oran in Algeria

  • Omaima Khalil – A bird came through the window عصفور طل من الشباك - A children’s song about a bird escaping from a cage and finding freedom

  • Enya – May It Be - A meditative prayer for success in the journey (composed for Lord of the Rings movies)

  • Phillip Glass – Metamorphosis - Solo piano

  • Karl Jenkins – Adiemus - Choral piece using European classical forms and African and Celtic-style melodies

  • Cheb Khaled – Aïsha - عايشة - French pop song written by singer-songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman

Many of these songs are about love in one way or another and in each case, my connection to them is love. I love the Arabic and French languages, not in a frivolous way but in a deep and committed way, where I am willing to make sacrifices and invest much time and effort in perfecting them. I discovered Cheb Khalid after returning from Syria and looking up songs online in order to keep learning Arabic. At one point I had memorized “Oran.” I discovered Omaima Khalil when I heard her sing at a concert in Berkeley with her father, the famous Lebanese composer and musician Marcel Khalife. I felt a great appreciation for Omaima because she sings so beautifully and with such control, and appears so modest. The children’s song I listed above is known throughout the Middle East and whenever I mention it, people smile with recognition, maybe even start to sing it. It is in Lebanese colloquial dialect, very similar to the Syrian colloquial Arabic I became familiar with in Syria.

In regards to Enya, I have loved her music all my life, after having been introduced to her by my parents. She is Irish, which is the part of my European heritage with which I identify the most. I performed in a dance piece choreographed to a section of Metamorphosis when I was a teenager, and besides that I’ve seen Glass’ music used as a backdrop for dance so many times – it creates a fascinating, vibrating fabric within which to create movement. “Aïsha” was one of those songs I listened to over and over again after I discovered it for myself, as if my ear could not get enough of it.

My point in describing the heart connection I have to these musical pieces is that real change requires that heart connection. Exporting a one-size-fits-all system to another part of the globe is not a solution for anything. Neither is imposing “best practices” on a situation without first getting to know it and questioning what responses might be best for it. As Professor Anne Campbell recently emphasized in her Education and Development class, we underestimate the importance of trust and human relationships in creating meaningful change. Projects where the “consultants” or the outsiders brought in to help implement the program actually know the local environment, and already have or can take the time to form meaningful connections with the other people involved, are by far the most successful.

“Aïsha” is sung by a man to a woman named Aïsha whom he wants to win over, though she ignores him. He offers her all kinds of gifts and riches, but she refuses, saying that she is worth more than that, that bars are bars even if made of gold, and that she wants the same rights and respect as he. This song could be related to organizational sustainability by saying that Aïsha’s voice is that of the stakeholder, the person who everyone is interested in but no one seems to fully understand. She clearly states what is best for her, but whether anyone listens is questionable. The more powerful always have the choice of listening – their life does not depend on listening to people with less power. It is interesting that in Cheb Khalid’s version, he added an additional stanza in Arabic in which he continues professing his love for Aïsha, saying she is the love of his life and that he would like to live with her. This stanza makes it sound like he did not really hear what she just said. A sustainable relationship might be possible if he recognized her true desires and changed his tune to suit her, but one guesses from the song that he will never win her over.

Most of these songs, while powerful, are on the quieter, slower side. This is the only type of music that is sustainable for me personally. Perhaps I have a sensitive nervous system, but I prefer melodic tunes and find loud and noisy music without clear, airy rhythms and melodies to be anxiety-producing, although I do enjoy an occasional session of something loud, just not all the time. I can relate this aspect of my preference in music to finding one’s niche, or to being the conservative hedgehog or the slow tortoise in a situation. While the fox and the hare have their place, not every organization can take that role because people need consistency and reliability over time. Additionally, while people can occasionally work frenetically, most of their time needs to be spent working calmly. Our nervous systems cannot handle a constant frenetic pace of work. Our health starts to break down if we go too long with an elevated heartbeat and shortened breath, our minds entirely focused on work and unable to notice our physical needs, especially that of rest. 

Finally, these songs have beautiful melodies. For me, the melody of a song is more important than the individual words making up the lyrics, if there are lyrics. In Metamorphosis, for example, the individual notes disappear into the rich fabric of tone and rhythm. I see the melody of a song as representing the whole picture or the overall patterns of the song. Likewise, it is important to see a situation as whole and to consider its overall patterns. This could apply to an organization deciding how to best fulfill its mission, or to an employee deciding how to implement a project successfully. Each effort needs to be negotiated within the overall situation of employee dynamics and roles within the organization or the full map of factors and actors who come together in negatively reinforcing or positively ameliorating some social problem. One could not expect to be successful by beginning with a firm notion of what needs to be done and how, without stepping back and considering how the project could fit into the overall ecosystem. By viewing the situation as a whole one is less likely to be shocked and blindsided by setbacks and unexpected problems. One would see the need to get to know the other pieces of the puzzle, even those that aren’t directly relevant to the project.

In conclusion: it is quite possible that there is nothing that cannot be used to illustrate an aspect of organizational or organism–ational sustainability.

Originally written on March 18, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.

Exploring the Exciting Possibilities of Action Research Consulting

I really appreciated the experience of working with two of my classmates on an in-class case study. What struck me was that it was not so hard – it was tiring, but not incredibly difficult in the way I remember analyzing a piece of literature to be difficult. I have some doubts about group work, so this experience alone made me less afraid of the group project ahead and of working with an outside organization. 

I was really interested in the point that the purpose of all the exercises we did during the in-class case study was to allow our conversations on the topic to deepen and evolve. It was interesting that none of the exercises we did were so important in and of themselves, and none of the exercises was a goal in and of itself as a finished deliverable, but that the deepening of our understandings of each other and the situation at hand, as reflected in our verbal conversation, was the goal of the exercises. 

Understanding the goal of our action research consultancy as being to deepen conversations within the client organization around the nature of its own challenging situations lifts a great deal of the anxiety I have previously associated with consulting. I used to think that a consultant was an “expert” who would enter the consulting situation already armed with useful insights, impressively convey those to the organization’s leadership, and at the end of the process somehow transfer over to them a deep understanding of their situation, challenges and solutions. Instead, we are saying that to enter a situation with an expert’s mindset and a set of answers would be a mistake. As the Zen master Suzuki Roshi famously stated, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

We can of course become more adept with study and experience at pulling from an increasingly large toolbox of frameworks, ideas, activities, and questions that could be applied to the situation as they are deemed useful. But these tools are elements of a process, not answers. Indeed, this approach is more process-oriented than it is results-oriented because in fact it is through the process of exploring the organization’s situation with its staff that we deepen our understanding of it. And I can see it would be much more valuable to help initiate a habit and a culture of exploring the issues within an organization than it would to come up with one possible solution to one pressing issue, because problems will continue to arise and need to be solved long after the consultants have left.

Another meditation reference comes to mind, which is the fact that practicing meditation in and of itself does not solve any of your problems. Frequently people come to meditation hoping for some solutions or answers to problems in their life. But the process of sitting still and letting the contents of your mind settle gradually allows for clearer seeing and for insight to arise. In the end, you still have to solve your own problems, but you can see your situation more clearly and consequently better ideas for solutions may occur to you. Or perhaps you can gain a different perspective on your problem that leads you to approach it in a new way.

I am also interested in this action research consulting’s emphasis on the primacy and importance of conversation. I’m currently looking at aspects of the dominant “white culture” and it occurs to me that the idea that conversation is important could actually be seen as revolutionary according to the dominant, white style of working. One characteristic of white dominant culture as it shows up in organizations is the “worship of the written word,” the idea that “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist.”[1] This is no doubt why the action research method is often contrasted with a “traditional” consulting approach involving structured meetings, interviews, and reports, instead of open conversation. I would guess that for many other cultures, a conversation-based approach may be the more intuitive one.

How my understanding of organizational sustainability ideas has changed over time: since I wrote the last essay, the ideas have gone from being purely theoretical to completely practical. I certainly do not know how to apply everything I have read, but the experience of the in-class case study has made me see better how to use frameworks and do exercises with a group. Overall, I am starting to see the ideas as more practical and applicable to social change work, whether or not I currently know how to use them.

Originally written on February 18, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


[1]Compiled from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001.

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.

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.

A Framework for Organizational Sustainability

Based on initial readings in my class on organizational sustainability in the spring of 2017, I designed this framework, or guide, to achieving sustainability as a social change organization. It is meant to be read from bottom to top. The attitudes mentioned towards the bottom are the roots of your actions, the beliefs that will allow you to act in a helpful way. The steps leading up the tree trunk are what you must do to carry our your organization’s mission, while the comments in the leaves of the tree are the fruits of your work.