8 criteria for building organizational sustainability

Sustainability_definitionSustainability has become a bit of a buzzword for organizations and it’s a key part of the work that Siena Consulting does in the not-for-profit and public sectors. On its face, the meaning of the word sustainability seems obvious: to maintain or endure, as any good dictionary would tell you. But what does sustainability mean for an organization? What are the characteristics that define it? And how do we go about assessing an organization to see whether those qualities exist?

Over many years of helping organizations become sustainable, Siena has evolved a comprehensive assessment model that asks organizations to reflect on the following questions:

  1. Are we relevant?
  2. Is our programming current?
  3. What can we do differently?
  4. What can we consider to enhance our relevance, increase our value, and ensure our sustainability?

Recently Siena began working with a Lower Mainland school district to help determine whether one of its secondary school professional programs is being run as efficiently as possible, whether it’s adequately subsidized, and how the apprenticeship component offered at one particular secondary school impacts the costs of the general program at that institution (and by extension, in the district at large).

Efficiency. In assessing the efficiency of this professional program, we ask how the district’s current financial investment translates into results. Are specific program objectives being achieved?

Relevance. To what extent does the program meet the needs of students and industry?

Impact. What are the broader consequences of the program, positive or negative, expected or unforeseen, for its beneficiaries and other parties?

Sustainability. Can the district maintain the current business model underpinning the program over the medium and long term?

In posing these questions, we also consider eight criteria that form the foundation of our sustainability framework: strategic planning, organizational capacity, political support, partnerships, program development, measurement and evaluation, communications, and funding stability.


Considering these eight criteria one by one helps us to break up the complexity inherent in organizations and programs. If we were to simply ask the question, “Is the program/organization sustainable?” we might quickly be overwhelmed by input, conflicting data, shifting priorities, and – of course! – personalities. Considering each segment in isolation enables us to identify weaknesses versus strengths and determine where resources are lacking. At the end of the day it’s still complex, but this framing makes it more manageable.

Are you engaged in a sustainability assessment? What kinds of information are you taking into consideration? Are we missing anything? Would you like to find out more about the sustainability framework we’ve described? Drop us a line – we love talking about sustainability! And if you want to dive into these characteristics at your organization, we may be able to help.