Sustainability addresses social, economic and environmental issues, seeking creative solutions that make all three better, or at least not trade them off. Typical trade-offs include jobs or the environment, growth or quality of life.
Most nonprofits focus on only one area: economic development, the environment, or social issues like hunger and homelessness. Nonprofits do great work in their silos. But often a structure to manage their interdependencies is missing. There is, after all, a relationship between waste and water, food and land use, energy and economics.
In the Sedona, Arizona area, several local nonprofits formed the Sustainability Alliance, a coalition for us to explore our interdependencies, share resources, and cross-promote one another’s events. Some members were reluctant initially, worrying about time commitments and being pulled away from their core mission. And each group had promised not to share its email list with others.
But we had shared goals and interests. Two groups were working with schools; two had a speaker’s series. We were all concerned about how development and tourist-driven traffic was affecting our communities and straining our water resources.
There are benefits to working together. We can speak with a unified voice. We have found creative, multi-disciplinary solutions to local issues. And because we are seen as trying to make everything better – our economy, livability and environment – we are becoming a respected go-to group for advice.
Here’s my advice for getting started.
Develop a Shared Understanding
We started by comparing where our passion for sustainability came from. This helped us understand one another and uncovered shared assumptions and visions.
I gave a briefing on The Natural Step’s science-based framework for sustainability so we would share a mental model for sustainability. We analyzed the region’s issues and opportunities within that framework to gain a sense of priorities.
Identify Manageable Joint Projects
Start small and work incrementally. We identified three program areas to work on.
Education. Those working with schools worked together to offer holistic teacher training on sustainability and coordinated our services to each school based on their interests and needs. We’ve also set up a Sustainable Entrepreneurship Microloan Program for Schools.
Business. We wanted a way to recognize businesses that were working toward sustainability and to encourage others to move in that direction. We couldn’t find certification that met our criteria (fast, easy and cheap; applied to all industries; offered levels of performance that included social and environmental criteria with the highest level as full sustainability). So, through a member’s technical skills, we built an online system which we can share with well-positioned organizations in other regions.
Community. Metrics can really focus people. We are developing sustainability indicators so we can compare communities in our region on factors like recycling, hunger, quality of life, solar power production, and river flows, to see over time if we are approaching full sustainability.
Concurrently the region has decided to brand itself as a sustainable destination, so economic development folks now need some of our programs, creating community interest in and support for our work.
Keep Your Eyes Open for Opportunities
Opportunities will crop up where your group could offer useful insights. Our Alliance sometimes acts like a mini-think tank, a forum to find elegant solutions solving multiple problems at once. We have assembled interdisciplinary recommendations for a variety of local issues including solving traffic problems using existing infrastructure. We’ve also made recommendations regarding undeveloped City land, how to get the biggest sustainability bang for their buck.
Operate on a Shoestring
All of this has been done without funding. You can get lots done when you offer people an important project aligned with their passions and you don’t care who gets credit. Start small and identify someone with project management and meeting facilitation skills to lead it.
It’s definitely been worth it. We hope you’ll give it a try. Let us know if we can help.
Darcy Hitchcock, Collaborator in Chief for the Sustainability Alliance, has advocated for organizational democracy and sustainability for over 25 years. She’s a keynote speaker, the author of 10 books, and the co-founder of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals where she teaches online classes on sustainability assessments to an international audience. www.SustainabilityAllianceAZ.org Darcy@SustainabilityAllianceAZ.org
This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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As the famous British Composer and Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, “Music does not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” If you replace the word “Music” with the word “Leadership” or “Team” or “Strategy” etc., then we all give and receive value from others. That’s the spirit of the Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange encounters, sponsored by SynerVision Leadership Foundation’s “Community for Community Builders.”
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