The Sustainability Puzzle

By: Shauna Stubbs, RHYTTAC Principal Investigator for National Safe Place Network 

Sustainability is more than fund development and capacity building.  It is not only easy to over-simplify the idea but to completely mis-characterize it.  We think about how our agency or program can win funding from competitors.  But in truth, sustainability is collective, cooperative, and collaborative.  Here are a few pieces of the puzzle to help you consider applying a philosophy of sustainability in your organization.

Know what your community needs.  Regularly mapping assets, assessing needs, and identifying gaps in resources or services for the population(s) with whom you work enables organizations to avoid duplication and focus effort where it is most needed.  Keep in mind that community boundaries aren’t necessarily geographic.

Know who you are.  Develop a clear mission and use it to drive decisions.  Recognize your strengths and leverage those in organizational and program development.  Avoid the temptation to reconfigure for funding opportunities (or even private donations) that aren’t an authentic fit.

Know who you need.  This applies both internally and externally.  Board and leadership development require attention to diversity.  Both should reflect the populations you serve and bring the full complement of skills and assets necessary for your organization to thrive!  From an external perspective, sometimes the most sustainable strategy to achieve an objective is to build relationships with partners who can contribute their strengths and resources to your success.

Value people.  Listen for the voices of clients, volunteers, and direct care staff.  These are the people who really know what is going on, and they are so often ignored or unappreciated.  Recognize how important the people who earn the least in your organization truly are, invest in their professional development, and engage them in decisions.  Then sit back and watch what happens!     

Be Excellent.  Start from the most evidence-informed position possible, develop programs based on logic models, monitor performance and evaluate outcomes.  Continuously improve the work you do.  Build depth before breadth.  As a reminder, none of these grand ideas will produce excellence without the engagement of the aforementioned people.

Pay it forward.  Agencies and programs that are culturally invested in professional advancement and Positive Youth Development have a natural advantage when it comes to succession planning.  Draw a pathway from receiving services to volunteering to providing services to leadership, and make it part of your organizational identity.

Share what you learn.  Evidence-based practice involves exploring what has and has not worked for others, critically considering what is likely to work for the people you serve, and evaluating outcomes that follow the practices you employ.  It also involves supporting the knowledge base available for other practitioners to explore.  What you learn can be helpful to others.

It’s all about the mission.  There is no place for ego.  People who work in organizations who serve people and communities are ultimately aiming to work themselves out of a job – to eliminate the need for their services by solving the social problem at the root of the need.  For example, the Forty to None Project’s mission is “…to raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth experiencing homelessness.” Learn more at:

Follow these links to sustainability resources available from National Safe Place Network:

Follow the links below for additional resources about sustainability:

Each of the following links provide information about potential funding sources:

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