Destination: Sustainability

For nonprofit leaders who are tired of their current decision making paradigm, the more nimble and actionable process of “matrix mapping” explained in the book, Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, offers a fresh and immediately gratifying alternative.

This book will help you examine your current business model, identify areas for adjustments, consider income streams and ultimately assist with ongoing decision making. Nonprofit Sustainability by Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman is an essential tool for CEOs, EDs and management teams.

There was a quote from this book that especially resonated with me because I’ve heard versions of this so frequently during my years in the nonprofit sector. It goes as follows: “A new executive director was told by the board and the staff, ‘There’s a $300,000 hole in the budget that you have to fill.’ Not only is this a dishearteningly phrased directive, it’s an unproductive way to characterize a financially difficult situation. Behind this statement is the unspoken assumption that programs and their funding occupy two separate spheres rather than fitting into an overall business model for the organization.” (p. 109)

This excerpt compelled me to ask the authors, “What is the most common reason why nonprofit leaders look at programmatic sustainability and financial sustainability in isolation of one another?”

Steve Zimmerman responded by saying “It is difficult for board members and senior managers to look at both mission impact and financial profitability primarily because our systems aren’t designed to do so. Program evaluations rarely provide information about the full cost of the program and financial statements don’t reveal the impact that our programs are having. Likewise, in our board meetings we tend to discuss items down an agenda: programs then finances then fundraising. But all of these are deeply interconnected. The Matrix Map is a visual tool that integrates mission and money and allows leaders to make decisions while holding both programmatic and financial sustainability together.”

I also asked Zimmerman, Bell and Masaoka to explain their claim that “sustainability is an orientation, not a destination.” Zimmerman said, “One of the common comments that I receive from boards when we’re doing strategic planning is that they want a “sustainable business model.” It is often said in a way that implies that sustainability is a destination – once you get to the nirvana of a sustainable business model you don’t have to worry anymore and money will continue to come rolling in for perpetuity. We know the reality is that nothing is forever. Funding sources come and go and constituents’ needs evolve. So, what is sustainable today may not be sustainable tomorrow. As a result, sustainability is constantly evolving and requires an orientation of monitoring and decision making to make sure that your organization is sustainable at any given point and time.”

For more discussion about Nonprofit Sustainability, you can follow the authors: Jan Masaoka at Blue Avocado (www.blueavocado.org), which is an online magazine for nonprofits where the discussion on this topic and many others is continuing. Both Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman contribute there and can also be reached via their respective organizations: Compasspoint (www.compasspoint.org) and Spectrum Nonprofit Services (www.spectrumnonprofit.com).

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