Sounding Board v.30: Is Sustainability Sustainable?


Is Sustainability Sustainable?
By the principal consultants of WolfBrown,
with Joanna Woronkowicz

Historically, sustaining an arts organization meant generating enough earned and contributed revenue to fund current operations. With so much continued change and turmoil in the arts industry, WolfBrown set out to reconsider what sustainability means in 2011.
Is it possible that financial security actually deters sustainability?

Why are some arts groups able to persevere – and even thrive – when they are chronically “under-capitalized” and perpetually on the brink of extinction? On the other hand, why are well-established, large institutions with sizable endowments filing for bankruptcy? What, besides strong finances, does sustainability require? Is it possible that financial security actually deters sustainability?

Reflecting back on several decades of work with funders and arts organizations, we propose a more nuanced and multi-dimensional view of sustainability – one that encompasses and transcends the current dialogue on capitalization, adaptive capacity and other elements of good management. In our view, sustainability requires a balancing act with three interdependent but sometimes competing priorities:


Together, these elements give organizations the ability to excel in a permanent state of flux, uncertainty and creative tension.

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