measuring sustainability

In the social change sector, “sustainability” is a word equivalently “buzzy” to the word “resonate” in the coaching world.

Funders love to measure the impact of programs. Common questions on grant proposals and reports involve estimating in advance or measuring after the fact the sustainability of that impact, the program that created it, and even the organization itself. In other words, can this effect/program/organization last into the future?

The idea being that once social change has happened, it should (there’s my trigger word) be lasting.

As a sort of aside and if this were actually true, consider this: if social change/nonprofit organizations are truly successful, our world would then be a place where inequality, equality, and even equity give way to justice.

The ultimate measure of sustainability is that those organizations will literally disappear: there will be no need for them.

I’ve had conversations about this on my podcast, and I’m always struck by the similarity between that somewhat freaky concept and my own position as a health coach: if I do my job well, my clients don’t just achieve a health goal or two or three, they leave with a new life skill—how to set and reach health goals on their own.

That’s right: I can measure whether my clients have reached sustainability by how much they don’t need me anymore. They might leave before they reach their stated goal—and I know that they have the ability to reach it on their own.

the record on sustainability

The topic of weight is a very tired one when viewed as a measure of health; however, it’s an easily understandable one, so bear with me.

I frequently hear variations on the following at initial consultations:

  • “I’ve tried everything: you name the diet, I’ve done it.”
  • “I probably know too much about food and dieting—and I still can’t lose weight.”
  • “Oh, I can lose the weight—I just can’t keep it off!”

A lot of us discover that, indeed, it’s not so difficult to lose weight on a highly restrictive diet. And more often than not, the pounds come back … and they bring their friends!

In the vast majority of cases, overly restrictive (crash) dieting simply does. not. work. It’s not sustainable in the long run.

One of my favorite stories from a client goes like this: her husband works at a large corporation that shall not be named, and this company holds annual weight loss challenges every January. (Don’t get me started.) Every year, her husband wins this challenge, and the rest of the year, he gains the weight back—and then some.

Impressive? Definitely. And it would be more so if he weren’t losing the same 20 pounds every year, especially since those same 20 pounds are gradually becoming less and less of this total body weight….

In short, for most of us, our record with sustainable change is not great.

change + transformation

The past three weeks on the blog, I’ve been introducing—somewhat obliquely, I admit—the process I take clients through when we work together, whether in employee wellness settings or privately, in groups or 1:1.

Because I come from a background in the culinary world, I am tickled that the acronym for the process is EAT because I can tell clients that they can EAT their way to health! (Which is patently untrue because, yes, it’s about the food—and it’s more than the food.)

So far I’ve touched on E (for engage) and A (for align). The final letter, T, stands for Transform.

Taken all together the process looks like this:

  • Engage your inner wisdom. Get in touch with your intuition to decide what’s right for you right now rather than listening to external noise about what your food and lifestyle choices should be.
  • Align. Make sure your daily choices—small and large—line up with the health goals you identified in step 1.
  • Transform. Layer together the tiny daily habits (and practices and rituals) that are the result of making the better choice on a regular basis.

To me, “transformation” feels like a much more powerful word than “change.” I may be imagining it for my own purposes, but it feels more—dare I say it—sustainable.

When I work with clients on their health goals, we work as hard (if not harder) on transforming their mindset as we do on bringing about “external” change. (External change can be weight loss, a physical fitness goal, a shift in their career, the development of a spiritual practice, or an improvement in their sleep habits, relationships, stress release, etc.)

It’s not unusual for clients to experience a paradigm shift they didn’t expect—one that suddenly makes lasting transformation more important than external change.

measuring transformation

As I mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of doing some market research around employee wellness offerings, particularly in the nonprofit sector. (If you wear an HR hat in that sector, I’d love to chat!)

And I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people in the social change sector about how to measure the effects of wellness offerings—both on individual employees and on organizations. It’s messy to say the least!

At least for now, both the conventional medical world (let’s call it “disease care”) and the funding world still seem to focus on quantitative measures:

  • Improvements in health markers of individuals, measured by medical testing: did an employee’s BMI go down? how’s their cholesterol? and how about their blood sugar level?
  • The bottom line/ROI (return on investment) for organizations: does the program quickly reflect a positive change in the budget?

In other words, they seem to care more about quantitatively measurable change.

The coaching/alternative medicine world and, increasingly, the HR world tend to focus more on qualitative “measurements:”

  • Transformation that has occurred, usually self-reported by means of employee surveys. Employees report that they are less stressed, more able to focus, more productive, happier.
  • The ROV (return on value) for organizations: what are the intangibles that are not immediately quantitatively measurable. Are employees more engaged? Have relationships with stakeholders become stronger? Are programs more effective because employees are better able to do their work?

In other words, they are more focused on qualitative, sustainable transformation.

And I suspect that we’ll see an increasing focus on the qualitative thanks to the pandemic, which really is a pandemic of possibility.

measuring sustainability

Is it even possible to measure sustainability? In a culture that values instant gratification, it’s a little difficult to think about the long term. What’s the lifespan of a program’s impact? of the program itself? of the organization that runs the program?

And perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Perhaps we need to ask instead, what’s the most important element in organizations and their programs? What’s the one thing that allows them to serve their clients to the best extent possible?

They wouldn’t exist without the most valuable asset of any organization: its people. And if the people are not sustainably healthy, if they haven’t figured out how to bring about their own transformation—rather than making superficial, short-term changes—the programs and the organization will suffer.

I often think that the term “capacity building” is wrong, or at least dreadfully misguided. In the social change sector, it most often refers to improving physical infrastructure (physical plant, IT systems, etc.) or leadership training—and it ignores the most fundamental capacity an organization requires: the capacity of its humans to do their best work—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—to make the world a better place.

You can’t use a building or IT or any other assets to their fullest potential nor can you be a good leader if you’re not truly, holistically healthy. So perhaps the capacity we want to grow is that of our human resources—our employees—to be healthy.

make the connection

  • If you’re interested in building the capacity of your human resources to transform their health—and ultimately the sustainability of your organization’s impact—email me! My EAT™ | Your Way to Health program will be available for organizational use in 2022, so let’s talk about what it looks like as you plan for the next budget year.
  • If you’re interested in applying the EAT™ system to your own health goals, what are you waiting for? (And if you think you might need support in doing so, October 1 is the deadline to apply for the Fall 2021 cohort of my EAT™ | Your Way to Health program—scholarships are available.)