No doubt one of the most commonly used words in the non-profit sector (sometimes innocently lumped together with other words to make beauties such as sustainable development), sustainability is an interesting concept. It’s perhaps also not a million miles off holding some kind of ‘holy grail’ status, too. Built into nearly every project proposal by default, it remains elusive most of the time. So what’s the big deal?
Donors like to think that their money – and sometimes effort – are going to last way beyond the project cycle (to coin another phrase). In other words, when the money runs out they like to think that things aren’t going to come crashing down. This is kind-of sensible, I’d say. The trouble is, it’s really rather tricky.
For a start, projects are often funded for fairly short periods of time – up to five years if you’re lucky but often two or three (many smaller projects, of course, run for much less). This isn’t long if you’re hoping to create a long-lasting, positive change. Through my own experiences getting muddy on projects, or studying the subject from the comfort of a university campus, this leaves only a limited number of options. Two of they key ones must be:
Create a business model: If you need to make money to keep the project going, then you’re open to market forces. People will only buy crap products “because they’re ethical” for a while, and before they realise that they’re perhaps just that – crap products. Zillions of small businesses around the world fail without having the complexity of being part of a conservation and development project, so achieving financial sustainability is a real challenge. Sadly there aren’t that many success stories.
Factor yourself out of the project: Rather controversial for many larger NGOs, although some actively pursue it. Some research would be nice. Anyway, whether or not a project needs to become ‘commercial’ (see above) keeping costs down is vital if it’s to have any chance of survival. This could mean local staff, local salaries, local overheads, little or no ‘head office’ consultation fees, or people flying left-right-and-centre around the world for no apparent reason, etc. Maybe the best projects create the desired change, and when the experts have long packed their bags and left it’s able to continue running on a shoestring.
Gerald Durrell had the right idea when he said that his dream was to shut down his zoo in Jersey. Of course, he’d then have to go and find something else to do, but that didn’t matter. It would have meant he’d succeeded in his mission to save endangered species, and that was all that mattered to him.
Trying to unite profit and social venture – which I think includes conservation and development projects – doesn’t only worry or challenge me. Plenty of other people are already writing and blogging about it. Let’s hope the debate reaches a useful conclusion. A few more positive outcomes would certainly help us along.
Just paying lip service to the ‘s’ word doesn’t really get us anywhere in the long run.