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Sustainability: It Requires More Than Money (Pt. 2)

July 28, 2011

(This is the second of three posts on organizational sustainability by Kevin Monroe, founder and managing partner of X Factor Consulting LLC and FC Atlanta's Expert in Residence for July. In his previous post, he wrote about the importance of producing, documenting, packaging, and promoting program results.)

Kevin_Monroe_medium Sustainability is intentional, not accidental. Program sustainability is an outcome of strategic leadership, planning, and action occurring within an organization rather than mere chance and happenstance. In my previous post, I focused on the necessity of producing, documenting, packaging, and promoting program results as sustainability imperatives, because when people appreciate your efforts, they invest in your impact (results). This post explores relationships as a fundamental aspect of program sustainability, while the third post in the series will take a closer look at resources as the final element.

Relationships Are Organizational Assets

Relationships are primary, all else is derivative. Think about it: How has your organization and its programs benefited from relationships? If you're willing, invest a few moments now and grab a sheet of paper. Draw a line down the middle (or open a two-column document) and in the first column list some of your organization's most significant accomplishments (funding obtained, partnerships established, key staff hired, influential board members recruited, etc.). Now, in the second column, list the relationships that were either directly or indirectly involved in making those accomplishments a reality. I bet you have relationships correlated to every good thing that has happened. And that confirms something my father used to tell me: "It's not what you know, but who you know that counts." Countless times in my youth, I attempted to argue with him. Funny, isn't it, how our perspective changes as we grow older.

Your organization already has a network of relationships. The size may vary based on a number of factors -- how long your organization has existed, how many board members you have or have had through the years, the number of volunteers, community stakeholders, investors (funders and donors), staff, and partners connected to your organization. But intentionally developing new and maintaining existing relationships is a key to sustainability.

Let's explore three key concepts that illustrate the power of your relational network.

Concept 1: Dunbar's Number

The first comes from Professor Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford and author of The Human Story. Dunbar has determined that there's a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number has come to be known as Dunbar's number, and he puts it at between 100 and 230, with a common value of 150. Hold that thought for a moment and let's explore the second concept, the law of attraction.

Concept 2: The Law of Attraction

Simply put, the law of attraction is the notion that like attracts like, or as my mother used to say, "Birds of a feather" -- you know the rest -- "flock together."

By combining the law of attraction with Dunbar's number, we can hypothesize that many of the people who are currently involved with our organization know other people that would also be drawn to our organization. Even if we take an extremely conservative approach to the numbers, I would suggest that everyone who is currently involved with your organization could identity ten, fifteen, even twenty other people who might have interest in your work. Think about the potential expansion of your relational network.

Concept 3: Six Degrees of Separation

If we interject a third key relational concept, things really get interesting. "Six degrees of separation" refers to the relational connectedness of our social networks -- i.e., that no one is more than six steps removed from anyone else in the world. If you combine the six degrees concept with the two other concepts, you begin to get an appreciation for the power of your existing relational network.

You don't know everyone you need to know. But everyone you know knows someone you need to know. So how do you leverage your relational network to enhance your sustainability? By being intentional. We see four key ingredients to a robust relationship strategy: identify, connect, nurture, and engage.


Invest time in identifying your organization's existing relational network. There are several ways to approach this. Here are two simple things you can do to begin mining and mapping your relational network:

1) Mine all of your existing databases (consider yourself fortunate if you have all of this in a single database) to identify all past or present relationships. Develop lists of volunteers, investors (individuals or institutions that have provided funding), past board members, partners, and (in some cases) clients.

2) Engage your board (you can also do this with staff and key volunteers) in relationship mapping for your organization. Identify the key sectors in your community that are pertinent to your organization (business, health care, faith, law enforcement, education, civic organizations, philanthropy, government, media, etc.). Use flip charts and make one page for each sector. Then develop lists of the key contacts each board member has in each of these sectors.

There are dozens of other ways to identify people for your network (just think about your social media outlets). It's easily conceivable that any organization can readily identify at least a hundred (perhaps several hundred) individuals or institutions that might be interested in its results and work. Once you've identified them, look for meaningful ways to connect.


Develop multiple avenues for creatively connecting with individuals and institutions. This can occur in very natural, organic ways that include people you know setting appointments and making introductions to people you don't but should know. In many organizations, board members (or others) set an appointment for a breakfast or lunch meeting, coffee or tea, or a round of golf. These are wonderful opportunities to initiate relationships with others who might ultimately invest their time, talent, treasure, or "touch" in your organization. But remember: the first meeting is just an opportunity for you to get to know one another and begin to develop a relationship. (It's not the time to ask for money!)

Other groups are comfortable with a more formal but still intimate approach to the initial connection and will host small informational meetings (breakfast, "lunch and learns," site visits). Regardless of the format (one-on-one, small group), the purpose is the same -- to connect with people who might want to get involved. Your organization needs to find the right mix of opportunities to connect. Once you do, it's time to nurture the relationship.


Nurturing is an important aspect of all relationships and takes myriad forms. Handwritten thank-you notes are still incredibly valuable and make a great impact. We encourage leaders to load all their key contacts in their phones and when they find a few spare moments in a day -- stuck in traffic, waiting for someone to arrive for a meeting, during a long commute -- to reach out and touch someone with a personal call or voicemail message. Keep it short and succinct. If they're a current investor, thank them for their support and share a short success story.

Make it a point to make the most of your limited time and find ways to naturally and continually nurture relationships. Think about Dunbar's number; you may have upwards of two hundred-plus people with whom you want and need to nurture relationships, so find meaningful ways to do so regularly.


Finally, you want to engage (and continue to engage) those with whom you have relationships. Along the way you'll discover the ways in which they most want to engage with and serve your organization. But whether they decide to invest their time, talent, treasure, or touch (or, better yet, all of these) -- and when the time is right -- you'll need to be ready to provide them with the opportunity to get involved. For some, the initial involvement may be as a volunteer (time); for others it may be a financial investment (treasure), while for others it may be an in-kind offer of a specific service (talent) or an offer to be an advocate or networker (touch).

Of course, all of these are elements in a virtuous cycle, and you will continually find new ways to connect, nurture, and engage people who, hopefully, because of the law of attraction ("If I like you and what you do, I will..."), are willing to introduce you to others in their sphere of influence (six degrees).

Relationships are primary and everything else derives from them. From a program sustainability perspective, your goal is to identify as many individuals and institutions as possible that value your results (outcomes) and discover ways to connect and nurture relationships with them so as to engage them as partners who will provide resources that allow you to continue producing outstanding results.

Good luck!

-- Kevin Monroe

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