A couple of days ago and with great grief and sorrow, the world received the sad news of Steve Jobs’ demise. This great entrepreneur who inspired millions around the world, and set a model for leadership in the business realm, was simply…gone. This piece, and despite the overwhelming emotions with which I’m writing it, is not intended for mourning. Instead, I hope it will sparkle a conversation (and quite paradoxically) on sustainability. Just as many are wondering now what after-Steve Apple will look like, we-social entrepreneurs- should also be asking ourselves: what would our organizations look without us? I’m not talking about decease necessarily, but about the mere absence of a leadership figure in an organization. If you’re an activist, a project leader or an active member of an organization, you probably understand what I’m talking about. How many times you wondered to yourself: God! Do I have to be the one doing everything? What would happen if I’m not there! These questions are quite normal, and they’re in no way a suggestion that people surrounding you are not as competent, but it’s definitely a signal that you should start thinking about the sustainability of your organization. But what does sustainability mean?
This term can refer to many things: financial sustainability, impact sustainability etc…but for the purposes of our topic today, I would like to define it as the ability of an organization/project to endure beyond individuals. In the often small scale of our social projects, we often find ourselves multitasking, improvising, networking and inviting whoever and whichever that can helps meet our ends. However, beyond a certain point of growth, we have to start thinking about how we can make our projects sustainable not only beyond us as leaders, but also beyond any individual that partakes in the development of it. Not to pretend to be the mother of any entrepreneurial wisdom, but I am bringing you today two tips on sustainability which I hope can get you thinking:
1) Building a system: remember what I said earlier about multi-tasking and improvising? This is where building systems comes in. We need to try and build systems that set up expectations within the organization on what needs to be done, and by whom. Systems are comprised of two essential elements:
- Structure: in our context, this can be the leadership structure of the organization: how many people should be in leadership? Which roles should be there? Who’s accountable to whom? Etc…
- Process: this is the set of rules or protocols by which duties need to be conducted. What are the duties of each individual position? How can they go about achieving their duties? What can be expected from the treasurer for example: making spreadsheets only or fundraising as well? Etc…
2) Building a culture: in building a system as mentioned above, one should be very careful: systems can truly help the efficiency of the organization, and its longevity beyond individuals, but they do not necessarily preserve the zeal and passion for the organization. In the knitty gritties of the project work, and perhaps with the frequent change in volunteers and leaders, the original vision and mission of the organization may start to become blurry. After a while, this will affect the actual impact of the enterprise and deviate it from the whole purpose behind its inception. Here, we need to invest our time in building a culture. But how can one go about that? Building a culture can be as simple as holding a meeting and just…talking. Not about what needs to be done next week or who needs to send what e-mail, but about the bigger image: why are here giving our time and passion? What do we stand for as an organization? Who are our target audience? Are we making the impact we envisioned? These questions (and as clichéd and corny as they may sound) can be vital and reorienting the organization, and making sure that its everyday operation goes hand in hand with its vision and mission.
By making sure that these two key elements are present: a clear system of operation and a strong organizational culture, you can go ahead and die in peace (just kidding). I wish you all and your projects a long and healthy life!