Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sustainability Or Just Sustaining Hope?

If only it were true. If only there were a formula for sustainability that could be broken down into three additive components that equaled sustainability: leadership + adaptability + program capacity = sustainability. To read the consultant's report, recently making the rounds of the twitter-sphere from Philanthropy News Digest, it looks so easy. All you need is visionary leadership, a willingness to adjust to changing conditions, and staff resources (i.e., skills, knowledge, passion, etc.) and you too can create a sustainable organization. So what's got me, the eternal optimist, ranting?

Well, let's start with the source. TCC Group is a consulting firm that provides strategic planning and management consulting services to nonprofit organizations. The data they analyze comes from the 684 nonprofit organizations that have paid TCC Group for analytical services associated with a "Core Capacity Assessment Tool" or CCAT. These data are not a random sample of nonprofit organizations and most likely include larger nonprofits more often than small ones, rich ones more often than poor ones, ones with inquisitive leaders or leadership teams more than those who just want to achieve their mission without lots of management mumbo-jumbo. Without going into the gory details I've got serious questions about the quality of the statistical analysis.

But what really got me going is a statement buried in the footnotes:

All presentations of variables that predict sustainability are concluded based on two factors: 1) the original theory of organizational effectiveness and how TCC believes it relates to sustainability; and 2) regression analyses. True predictability will require further research and investigation.

Translation: We have a model we believe in and where the statistics support our approach we present them. Oh, and by the way, we can't really predict sustainability. What we see over and over again is that individual donors, whether right- or wrong-headed, can support individual nonprofits in other words, sustainably. I wish that it were true that expert management was held in such high regard by all donors. I wish that nonprofit leaders were chosen for their management skills. I wish that TCC Group's training and coaching would guarantee sustainability, or that anything like a training course could create sustainability, but it simply ain't so.

Donors create sustainability. Some organizations and some causes are so central to our community that donors will give, forevermore, to support the organizations that fill those needs. Donors will give during those times when the organization is poorly led and will give when the leadership is strong. Donors who care about changing our community often give to multiple organizations that address a single issue because they just do not know which organization will do the best work. Donors give for a wide variety of reasons but generally to a narrow selection of organizations or causes. And while their giving can sometimes appear to be misdirected, their desire to address root causes cannot be denied. We have the endowment funds to prove it. They give, forevermore, to causes that matter who is leading the charge.

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