A Sustainable Organisation: thoughts about how to be one

Growing and maintaining sustainability, whatever the legal and governance arrangements of a business or enterprise, is about strategy, operations and products/services and, equally, about best practice in governance, creating a positive working environment for employees that promotes well being and being a responsible partner for customers, suppliers, communities and stakeholders.

An organisation that seeks to be sustainable matches its aim, mission and corporate objectives with its strategic plan.  By aligning these, the organisation is able to make sure goals and approaches to sustainability are built in to the way it operates and “does business”, and in essence, it can call itself a resilient one.

At the heart of a sustainable organisation is change and the organisation’s ability to learn, adapt and be agile.  Organisations therefore become sustainable through conscious and deliberate efforts.  Top-level leaders of sustainable companies take a long-term view when making decisions. Sustainable organisations also incorporate sustainability metrics into the capital budgeting process, develop solid evaluation processes that take external drivers into account.  They set clear targets for sustainability objectives and establish targeted programmes linking the objectives to their business results. 

A sustainable organisation is a resilient organisation. 

It has the capacity over the long term to thrive and flourish financially and through its strong governance, skilled human capital (its people) and relationships with customer and community.  Continuous improvement is embedded internally to make sure ways of working, systems, processes and approaches remain fit for purpose, agile and continue to meet internal and external needs.  It is good with resource efficiency and embraces environmental, financial and human aspects in its sustainability approach.  In particular, employee engagement and motivation is critical to success, as is collaboration and engagement with stakeholders and partners.  Infrastructure, technologies and processes make minimum use of natural resources and demonstrate that environmentally conscious approaches are part of the way the organisation “does business”.

Capacity building is a key feature of ensuring longer term viability. 

This involves up-skilling everyone (Board, employees, volunteers if you are a VCSE) and making sure internal capability is able to implement the strategic plan short, mid and longer term.  Boundaries and responsibilities in decision making are clear and support is in place to help people deliver.  This includes performance management, learning and development and coaching & mentoring.  Job specifications are fit for purpose and meet the needs of the strategic plan.

Steps to sustainability:

1. Defined purpose – purpose is discussed explicitly, clearly written up and shared widely. Values are discussed and demonstrated clearly in action. They are reviewed and refreshed regularly.  Purpose is a combination of vision, mission and values (the reason for being).  A congruency and connection between people and this core purpose is needed.

2. Framing it - daily conversation encourages and promotes change.  This is between leadership and employees who deliver the work day to day and enables conflict resolution, attitude and motivation, management of performance, confidence and understanding of how everyone fits in.  Coaching and mentoring  is often introduced by an organisation as a way to promote and embed this.

3. Well being and resilience will maintain a healthy and productive workplace.  Effective performance management systems set out what is important based on the goals and values of the organisation.  Leadership is enlightened and supports this approach and makes sure its managers achieve this.

4. Capacity – development and skilling up of people is critical for continued sustainability.  This is not about “sending staff on training”.  It is rather about development of people and their roles to support the work and purpose in the longer term.  People in a sustainable organisation learn well and apply it in their role.

5. Flexibility, adaptability and structure – effective organisations have sufficient flexibility to enable change and planned growth to happen at the same time. Too many processes and procedures will suffocate.  A good structure is flexible to meet customers' needs and employees have delegated authority to “go do”. 


Business sustainability represents resiliency over time.  Businesses survive and thrive because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems. These businesses create economic and social value and contribute to healthy ecosystems and strong communities.  Staying resilient involves regular analysis of the impact of products and services.