Sustainability in the Nonprofit World

We all know how common it is to talk about sustainability in the nonprofit world. But – especially for those of us in leadership roles – we’re usually talking about sustainability in relation to revenue diversity and the long-term health of our organizations. Well, my friends, we are losing out! Sustainability is much more than that – the triple bottom line is where it’s at: people, planet, and profits. Through this holistic approach we access an evolving global conversation with new opportunities that better position us to serve and achieve our mission.

My inspiration? Professor Dean Hess’ Economics and Metrics for Sustainability class, which my classmate Jenna shared about in an earlier post. Recently, I circled back with Dean to reflect on the field and our time in class.

Dean Hess currently works as Emerging Markets Business Consultant at Nike, and has extensive experience in finance and consulting. He received his MBA from American University, and brings his expertise to UP’s MBA program as an adjunct professor. Following are excerpts from our conversation.

How was sustainability addressed in your MBA? Or in other parts of your career?

Sustainability wasn’t a part of my MBA – this concept of the triple bottom line just wasn’t there. I had to go through a mental shift, and now I’m fascinated by sustainability. Portland has a big role to play for the United States, and potentially for the world. We could be a world leader in sustainability, if we’re not already.

Where do you think the academic study of sustainability is heading? What trends do you see?

Sustainability is fully embedded in innovation; it’s pushing the envelope. Take the example of Tesla: that’s the intersection of sustainability and business. That’s how you create a blue ocean and upend different markets.

I still feel there’s a long way to go – with understanding. It’s confusing, because of so many different terms and bodies like GRI [Global Reporting Initiative] – that’s just one body, but it’s not universally accepted. As the field matures, you’re going to see those bodies gain more strength and uniformity across the world.

Do you think politics plays a role in understanding current issues around sustainability? How can you address this with people who carry different political views, particularly in a sustainability class?

It’s tough, but I absolutely think sustainability includes a huge political element. You have to stay respectful. It can easily get political in class, and that’s not the intent. If you focus on content – science and facts – then people with different political views can understand where certain policies are coming from. Thinking people can see both sides, and if you can have an honest discussion without going into preferences or beliefs, which is hard to do, then it absolutely has a part of a [sustainability] class.

How do you make the case for sustainability in your professional life?

If you can’t connect sustainability to profit, then it’s not going to happen. I’m coming at the sustainability equation from the idea that sustainability has to provide you with a more competitive element if you’re going to talk about it in the business world. Not everybody takes that approach. A large portion of folks out there say: “well, it’s the right thing to do.” I take less of that approach – not because I’m heartless – but more because I think human nature in business has to have that element of: this is for the betterment of the organization and the product or service.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

There are a number of different directions you can go with sustainability, and regardless of what career you end up pursuing, you will be able to take some element of sustainability and embed that into your experience. It’s not going away, so the quicker you embrace these ideas and get in front of them, the more possibility you have of moving your organization into a competitive position.

Contributed by ~Sarah Beiderman is the Expansion Fund and Grants Manager for Friends of the Children