Learn More About Multi-dimensional Sustainability

Discussions about sustainability typically go straight to funding. There is an assumption that money is the only thing required to sustain a social impact program or change effort. 

Social businesses, nonprofit or community organizations, faith-based organizations, schools, and coalitions struggle to sustain their social impact efforts. Typically they’ll point to unstable funding as the reason. 

In reality, sustainability is multidimensional and requires a deliberate balance of forces that create lasting social change. At the highest level sustainability efforts bring together planning, passion, and inspiration. 

On a more practical level, there are at least 8 dimensions of sustainability that require deep consideration and inspired action. 

  1. Partnerships & capacity
  2. Coordinated & complementary funding streams
  3. Investment/divestment strategy
  4. Long-term change strategy
  5. Communications & marketing
  6. Equity
  7. Shared risk & protective factors
  8. Leading with passion

This blog post focuses on how social change efforts and social impact ventures can create sustainable infrastructure. Organizations and coalitions spend more time focusing on doing rather than “doing in a sustainable fashion.” 

There are a lot of circumstances that cause conversations about sustainability. Typically a partner leaves, a grant ends, or some change in implementation conditions occurs. When the time comes for a hard conversation about sustainability, the multi-dimensional perspective I’m sharing in this post is helpful to guide your planning efforts. 

Multi-dimensional Sustainability Means Empowering Gen X, Xennials, Millennials, and Gen Z

As a Xennial, I understand the crossroads of the current adult generations. We have a mix of preferences, ideals, ideas, and skillsets that are available to us via our generational diversity.

More importantly, as Gen X through Gen Z moves into leadership and decision-making positions the power to create social change shifts. These generations are already changing the landscape in government, businesses, and non-profit organizations with perspectives that value social impact, collectivism, and helping others.

We Already Did That

Sustainable change takes a few key ingredients, including inspiration. Despite having ideas, it’s difficult to step out and truly say you’re going to make “social change”. People will likely look at you and laugh. 

However, so many adults are doing self-development work and healing generational wounds. As a collective, we have to do that healing too. To learn from the things we’ve done in the past to move forward in our journey with a sound foundation. Like the African proverb the Sankofa infers “to go back and get”, we will need to go back and get the knowledge that will help us move forward.

It’s our responsibility to step up and create the social impact that we want to see. In that expectation lies the necessity to take action. But action is worthless if it doesn’t actually create change and that change isn’t sustained. 

WheIf we do work and it is not sustained, systems go back to harming and not helping people, we’ve undone nothing and gained a temporary win. That’s why it’s vital that we all get on board with what sustainability could look like and how to support those who are stepping out to create social change through their impact-focused venture.

We have the opportunity to make sure that change happens and we can correct some of the things that limit our ability to thrive. The people who are taking this mission on need support so they can continue their work. When people burn out and stop creating change, we miss opportunities to level up as a society. 

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Creating the Conditions for Change

Coming from a background in local and federal government, my perspective is unique and builds upon a multitude of case studies and examples from my work. Many people don’t know how advocacy, policy, or systems change work happens. 

I’ve been fortunate to support many communities, grantees, businesses, and solopreneurs in creating long-term sustained change. I’ve seen amazing work sustained and systems altered for the better. 

This type of change is only possible when the conditions allow it to happen, the leaders maintain their passion over time, and inspired action is continually taken.

Favorable conditions allow change efforts to grow and help us respond to the needs of people and communities. Taking the appropriate action to meet the community or environmental needs is a key piece to creating lasting social impact. 

Even at an individual level as an entrepreneur or solo non-profit leader, favorable conditions gives you a huge leg up in sustaining your efforts. The first step to creating the right conditions is being grounded in your idea and vision for change. The next step is to plan. 

The multi-dimensional sustainability framework creates a shortcut for the planning process. 

When we aggregate and coordinate enough of these change efforts together, that’s where we start to see disruption of our current systems and ways of thinking. In their place, we can install the right infrastructure and build systems that are focused on resilience and helping people thrive. 

Sustainability is no longer about doing less harm. It’s about doing more good.

-Jochen Zeitz

What is Sustainability?

Multi-dimensional sustainability includes at least these 8 facets. There are definitely more things to consider, but this is a starting point for this discussion.

  1. Partnerships & capacity
  2. Coordinated & complementary funding streams
  3. Investment/divestment strategy
  4. Long-term change strategy
  5. Communications & marketing
  6. Equity
  7. Shared risk & protective factors
  8. Leading with passion

Policy, Advocacy, and Systems Change

When I started my policy career, I didn’t really know what policy was. I knew I wanted to help people and policy was a way I could maximize my “helping”.

Throughout my career, I’ve discovered that policy, advocacy, and systems change are three important facts of an iceberg we haven’t fully explored yet. There are few of us who have been called to blend macro and micro-level social change and create avenues for society to move forward harmoniously. 

Investment/Divestment Key Questions

  • What worked? What didn’t?
  • What is the best use of our collective energy and resources? 
  • Who will make decisions about what is sustained and what is not? 
  • Where can we strategically abandon our work and close down efforts in an appropriate manner? 
  • What local and seed funding is available? If none, how do we advocate for some?

Partnerships Tips & Key Questions

It’s really difficult to maintain multi-sector partnerships because they require a balance of people and personalities. Strong partnerships require holding space for difficult conversations, decision-making, implementation and impact.

  • Where does decision-making power lie within this sort of partnership dynamic? 
  • Have you maintained a strong core group?
  • Is your partnership mission and vision focused & committed
  • Do these partnerships have the ability and commitment to continue work at a sustained level over time?

Communications & Marketing

Communications and marketing are the most underutilized strategies when it comes to sustainability. Why does your social impact venture matter? Better yet, why do your results matter? 

If you aren’t communicating your results clearly and consistently, your story will become lost. Unfortunately, I’ve seen firsthand how this happens. 

Initiative S does great work for 5 years. Community partners can’t understand why their successful program ended when the funding ended. During those 5 years, no one shared transformation stories, outcomes, or the reason the initiative should continue. When the grant was over, it was like the work never took place. 

Communication strategies must include compelling stories and messaging that clarify why sustainability is essential. Marketing strategies help you “sell” your product or service. Both are essential parts of continuing to share your vision to inspire others to work with you, be served by you, or learn from you.

This might get confusing for folks so let’s simplify this part with an example. 

Example Communications Strategy: Sharing a vignette from a satisfied client who had a significant transformation through your programs/services/etc. 

Example Marketing Strategy: Annual online giving campaign soliciting donations for a particular reason or selling tickets for an upcoming event. 

After all, true social change means that successful strategies need to be moved out from the places where they originate. Through communications and marketing, sustainability becomes a collective effort vs. an individual problem. 

Communications & Marketing Key Questions

  • What successful strategies should I be communicating about?
  • Who do I need to communicate my success with? 
  • What stories can I tell that demonstrate what we’ve accomplished?
  • What marketing materials and efforts worked best?

Shared Risk & Protective Factors

Prevention science has offered us a lot of knowledge about how to stop problems before they occur. We haven’t always followed this science or invested in widely distributing and using it. 

Addressing root causes by building assets to help people thrive and live fulfilling happy lives is a sustainable strategy. However, we often start with the deficit part of the equation while not building up the resilience and assets of people and communities. 

Taking a multidimensional sustainability approach is supported by the foundational perspective of addressing Shared Risk and Protective Factors. If you aren’t familiar with this approach, CDC offers resources that explain the benefits and strategies you can use. 
Explaining this entire body of knowledge is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I’ll offer the parts that are relevant to sustainability. Addressing the common risk factors and promoting as many protective factors as possible will help reduce negative outcomes we don’t want while supporting resilience and asset building. 

Beyond being able to reach multiple outcomes at once, there might be additional funding streams available to partners that you are working to complement your efforts. Focusing on sustainable partnerships could help you diversify your funding streams. Identifying funding opportunities that address shared risk and protective factors can help you leverage additional funding streams.

Using the shared risk and protective factors approach can help you understand where you want to reinvest your energy if you’re divesting from something that wasn’t working. Looking at shared risk and protective factors from a practice-based lens helps you to make decisions about what is the most sustainable approach in the future.

Shared Risk & Protective Factors Key Questions

  • What are the things that we’re trying to change?
  • What are the risk factors that are stopping people in this community from thriving?
  • What are the places where we can put our energy to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors? 
  • Who are the partners that represent those places?
  • Are there funding streams accessible to the partners we’ve identified that can help fund our efforts? 

These thought leaders are people who can envision what a different world looks like and are willing to put their energy into creating that reality. Many operate with the fundamental principle of “what if things were created to help and not harm?”

As we see more people who have the passion and ability to create this change, those of us who want to see social change have to support them. If these change agents aren’t successful over time, the change we crave doesn’t happen. And that’s the problem.

Sustainability takes all of us committing to play an active or supportive role in making social change if we want to create the world our generation deserves. 

20006 Kampala Uganda with Dr. Fred Ssewamala & the Ugandan Minister of Education. We shared data from a microfinance program and gave suggestions for a larger sustainable program across the nation.

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