In the business world, sustainability is defined by the triple bottom line – consideration for not only profits, but also people and the planet. For NGOs sustainability has different meanings. When working to help NGOs become more sustainable – both internally and externally – McCO uses an adapted model that replaces “profits” with “performance.” Performance is a better indicator of NGO sustainability since they aren’t in the business of making profit, but rather delivering the most impact, in the most cost effective manner.
Whether focusing on internal or external sustainability, my work to build the capacity and effectiveness of NGOs, particularly small, local NGOs in fragile states has shown these four factors are critical to success.
1. Clear Vision & Strong Leadership: What do you want to achieve and how will you achieve it? Sustainable NGOs have a clear vision, actionable mission and strong, engaged leadership. Sustainability starts with a comprehensive strategic plan that is focused and realistic to the current resources (both human and financial) of the organization. At a minimum, the plan should define the goals, objectives, budget and fundraising plan for the next three years. The most effective strategic planning sessions are held off site and led by an objective, outside facilitator who understands the type of work the organization is engaged in and can assist the team with creating the plan, balancing priorities and staying realistic and focused. Building an effective Board of Directors is one of the most important things an NGO – no matter the age, size or scope – can do for sustainability. There are many strategies for curating the right influencers but the primary goal is to identify individuals who will provide good governance to the organization while also leveraging their own networks or resources to empower the work.
2. Demonstrated Results: Is your approach effective? How do you know? The most important thing an NGO can do to ensure sustainability is demonstrate real results and lasting impact. Donors no longer fund projects that aren’t proven to have the desired impact through careful assessment of metrics, whether quantitative or qualitative. The days of anecdotal stories of benefit succeeding as a fundraising strategy are largely behind us, and for good reason. Knowing that your interventions are having the intended impact is a critical part of an organization’s responsibility to do no harm. This means effectively piloting and testing theories of change prior to scaling them, iterating program approaches according to findings and being open about lessons learned from failures so that other organizations don’t make the same mistakes. Human Centered Design and Lean Start Up are two methodologies for designing and testing programs while evaluating their effectiveness that McCO uses in our client work frequently.
3. Effective Advocacy & External Communications Strategies: NGOs have challenging and sometimes competing communications agendas. Often they find themselves simultaneously tackling a problem that the public and their potential donors may not be informed about, working diligently to draw and sustain attention to a major crisis, rallying their membership to action and implementing campaigns to affect behavior change of their constituents. Without defined strategic and sustained advocacy plans, maintaining advocacy and communications can become a daunting and costly duty. Communications strategy should be a pillar of an organization’s strategic plan with a clear road map to the ways in which the organization must communicate in order to be effective. There are many tools available to help reign in the cost of communications, especially for campaigns that utilize social media.
4. Innovative & Diversified Funding Models: NGOs continue to be impacted by changing attitudes towards charitable giving. Trends in venture philanthropy and social impact investing have led many traditional NGOs to work to define the return on investment for their donors and better measure their social impact. The evolution of charitable giving has also created new opportunities for NGOs, leading many to examine ways to innovate their funding models. The right strategy depends on the size, focus and reach of the individual NGO, but mixing traditional giving with revenue generation through social enterprise models is an increasingly attractive approach.
NGOs are not necessarily intended to endure indefinitely, because we all hope that cancer will be cured, conflict will end, poverty will be alleviated, animals will be well treated and the planet will be saved. But until we reach such a utopia, NGOs have a critical role to play and responsibility to operate as effectively and sustainably as they possibly can. We work to help NGOs endure and thrive, while delivering the most effective services to the issues they’ve been created to resolve.
Victoria McColm is the founder and a Managing Director at McCO.