In Education and Learning, River and Water Organizations

Building Strong Champions with Organizational Sustainability

To address today’s water crisis, the national network of water protectors needs strong leaders. That’s why Building Strong Champions is the essence of River Network’s mission. At its core, Building Strong Champions is building the capacity of individuals and organizations. This blog post is the second in our series highlighting this work: organizational sustainability, a must have for every nonprofit organization.

By their very nature, non-profit organizations are built from a need: whether it’s protecting the environment, addressing poverty or raising awareness of a disease. But often, when faced with the many ways the organization can address the needs of its community, they become reactive rather than proactive. Chasing funding, growing or shrinking budgets and staff, and regular changes to operating documents and programs are signs that an organization is being reactive. This will often result in staff and board burnout, membership decline, and even mission stray. Through our work, River Network has found that sustainable and effective organizations have this key shared characteristic: the ability to carefully and intentionally plan.

There are a variety of ways organizations can plan intentionally, depending on its needs. These include:

  • Strategic Planning: longer-term planning that guides the work of the organization for two- to- three years.
  • Fundraising: setting goals and realistic activities that encourage all staff help raise funding for the organization;
  • Budgeting/Annual Workplans: planning that guides the organization’s activities over the course of a year
  • Board Recruitment and Development: successfully recruiting, onboarding, and engaging productive board members and moving committee members up the engagement ladder to the board;
  • Incorporating Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (DEI) throughout the organization: making sure the work you are doing is centering on all aspects of equity, diversity, and inclusion and that is woven throughout the organization’s culture and work

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” – Yogi Berra

Regardless of the type of planning your organization will conduct, the following three aspects determine its success:

  1. Mission: The real power of an organization lives within the mission statement. In her book (and podcast) “Nonprofits are Messy,” Joan Garry explains that a mission statement should “clearly state who you serve, what you do and why you do it.” It is your written declaration of purpose. Once you have a clear, strong mission statement, planning should follow. Take a moment and review your organization’s mission statement. Does it meet Garry’s criteria? Should it be updated or modified?

A clear purpose will unite you as you move forward, values will guide your behavior, and goals will focus your energy.”― Kenneth H. Blanchard

  1. Goals: We’ve all heard of S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals but organizations and individuals often struggle with how to write them. Goals are the organization’s “North Star,” aligning the work with the mission while allowing innovation and flexibility. Organizations should set goals for fundraising, programming, board/committee recruitment, and DEI-related work. It’s important to make goals specific, realistic and clear enough to drive action but flexible enough to allow for new ideas or “pilot” projects. Failure to write clear, measurable goals can make staff and board members feel disempowered and frustrated. Writing and implementing goals are important but to maximize impact, organizations must take the time to evaluate their progress. Incorporating time to evaluate into quarterly meetings at both the board and staff levels adds a level of accountability, provides opportunities to determine if changes are necessary, and encourages reflection on lessons learned.

“Life is not meant to be lived as a Lone Wolf. We all need a Pack.”  Abby Wambach

  1. People: Sustainable organizations recognize the importance of investing in people and relationships. Within an organization, the board, committees and staff should be encouraged to identify needed skills or experience currently missing within the organization. It’s also important to have avenues for recruiting individuals with those skills to the organization. Succession planning should also be a standard practice employed by organizations to ensure continuity at both the staff and board level. Planning documents should include goals to identify, recruit, and properly onboard individuals that help the organization to grow and/or meet its mission. Organizations should incorporate DEI efforts into all aspects of the organization in thoughtful, meaningful, and impactful ways.

Sustainable organizations recognize the importance of partnerships and utilize them effectively. Coalition building, community organizing, and public programming require staff and volunteers to build intentional and mutually beneficial relationships. Organizations should ask themselves: who was missing or left out of our work? Who needs to be part of this work to meet the mission? How can our work build or amplify the work and power of our partners?

Interesting in learning more about sustainable organizations? Our staff can facilitate your strategic planning, board recruitment, and coalition building efforts. Email me at to learn more and subscribe to River Voices to learn more about the work we do.

Read our blog posts about the other pillars of our Building Strong Champions workLeadership and Professional Development.

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