For the most part we work with people trying to deal with social problems – homelessness, drug and alcohol issues, displaced people, domestic violence, literacy, education participation etc. For many these can be highly challenging and, at times, demoralising assignments. Ones that are not made easier by a media that sensationalize and overemphasises our perceived lack of progress. This then prompts our political leaders to constantly move the goalposts as they manicly promise and then search for far quicker fixes.
These conditions take its toll on people and organisations alike. Some limp along with little support, while others are forced to amalgamate or close altogether. Others, thankfully for our communities, continue to persevere and make considerable headway. So what are these surviving organisations doing that’s makes them sustainable?
Willa Seldon and Meera Chary from the Bridgespan Group provide someone insights into this by studying 11 Programs their organisation has worked with. Each of the Programs have been operating for an average of 12 years but continue to produce measurable improvements in their communities.
Quite apart from the fact that these organsiations are still around to tell their stories, Willa and Meera also identified a number of other common features, including:
Successful organisations know who their key stakeholders are; they engage them and then keep them engaged.
Despite significant funding swings, multiple changes to the stakeholder groups and other factors outside of their control, these organisations had developed a knack of adapting and converting changes into opportunities.
Getting community buy-in.
As Willa and Meera observed … “Most of the community programs we looked at noted that working closely with residents and local groups was important, but it was often unclear how to do this well”. This suggests that while community involvement is essential, what works for your community is the way to go rather than a template approach.
Using data to improve and communicate results.
These organisations work out a way to measure their impact. They then use this to improve and refine their practices and effectively communicate this with all stakeholders; and I would suggest funding bodies.
Clearly for an organisation to effectively deal with social problems, persistence is critical, but not enough. To get real results, an organisation needs to be strategic and prepared to continually learn and evolve.