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Reflections on sustainability - Nuala Doherty

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As I leave CES after nine years leading the organisation, I am experiencing a period of taking stock, remembering and reflecting, as I prepare the handover for the next Director.

One of the steep learnings for me nine years ago as I moved from a work life entirely in the public service, was how to think about sustainability and how to attend to it while building and developing a non-profit organisation like CES.

A quick scan of the research on start-ups tells its own story. ‘Why start-ups fail’, ten things which help start-ups succeed, the mental recipe for start-ups are just some of the articles which reflect our search for the magic formula for sustainability. Many reference a seminal HRB study by Shikhar Ghosh, which looked at over 2000 venture capital start-ups. NESTA in the UK have also explored the theme, in particular the mindsets of leaders who succeed in scaling their organisations. The data is stark, particularly in the venture capital sector. 75% of start-ups don’t see their 10th birthday.

Whether your core business is commercial, public, or in our case, as a not for profit with a broad funding base, there are some core, common elements which recur in the literature and which have been shown to support the sustainability of start-ups. These are the elements which we learned could help us to survive and thrive into our second decade.

When I came to CES in 2011, it was over two years old and the essential and detailed work of building the organisational foundations and infrastructure had been very ably put in place by my predecessor, Deborah Ghate. The Ireland of that time was also careering into the worst economic meltdown in our history which was a very different environment to the one into which CES has been planned. One of the unique parts of the context of CES is that we are an all island organisation working across two jurisdictions. While we benefited in our early years from funding from our philanthropic funder (Atlantic Philanthropies) and from government, the future was always going to depend on our capacity to be sustainable.

Much has happened in both jurisdictions within a short space of time. New initiatives and agencies, the collapse and restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland and Brexit are just some of the external factors that have played out across the island, and during our ten-year history, with similar but different rhythms and cycles.

Seven success factors for start-up survival

The literature success factors for start-ups survival can be boiled down to seven.

  1. Have a plan, be committed to it, stay the course and stick to it.
  2. Be driven by impact and making a difference. This is where the passion and commitment come from, both of which will sustain you in the long haul.
  3. People – build a world class team with strong technical knowledge in your chosen development area.
  4. Relationships and mentors. Both take time and investment but are critical to learning and growth.
  5. Be competitive – in the standards you set for your organisation and what you believe you can do
  6. Have strong business domain knowledge. A business mindset and infrastructure is your organisation’s engine room.
  7. You need some luck and a good sense of timing.
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Having a plan and sticking to it is in the DNA of CES. It’s what we encourage those we work with to do. We’ve had two cycles including external reviews of our work, followed by strategies and then sustainability plans. They were all essential to us but what really matters is implementing them. It doesn’t mean that you are completely inflexible, but it helps you stay on course. The literature speaks about successful organisations having one or two pivots (a change in course or direction). The standout pivot for CES was the move from an almost exclusive focus in the children and young peoples’ sector where we started our life, to expanding into other human service sectors. Our core areas of work – using evidence and supporting implementation – were transferrable and relevant.

Making a difference and being driven by making an impact on society and ultimately helping to transform lives has been a huge driver for us in CES. This motivation is an essential ingredient of CES and other organisations who are successful at what they do. Simon Sinek talks about the importance of ‘finding your why’. Time we spent on clarifying, agreeing and articulating a shared purpose reaped dividends for us – in developing our strategy, building our staff team and figuring out where we could add value.

Having a world class team with strong expertise in diverse, complementary fields – from evidence, implementation and evaluation through to project management, communications and administration has enabled us to be responsive and ready for opportunities. We have had access to a small group of outstanding Associates. Through our CES Graduate Internship Programme we are growing the field of early in career specialists. It has been a tremendous honour to work with such talented colleagues.

We have relied heavily on strong mentoring relationships to guide steer and challenge us over the years. Our Board of Directors played a key role in supporting and positively challenging our direction. External relationships helped us to remain open, fostered our curiosity and helped us to cultivate a willingness to continuously learn and improve.

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Being competitive felt a bit uncomfortable as it’s not a term associated with non-profits. However, the spirit of aiming to be excellent and best in class is how I interpreted it. We have been hugely admiring of some of our ‘sister’ organisations, many of whom are internationally based, where the concept of intermediary organisations like CES are more developed. These relationships were important in illustrating what we could become, learning from experience and access to international networks and expertise to draw from. Closer to home, we learned the centrality of building and nourishing strong trusted relationship with our partners and stakeholders. This is easier said than done, in an environment that is not configured to support and incentivise collaboration.

All organisations at any stage of their development need a sound business model and having a strong corporate services/financial function is a sine qua non. The challenge for small to medium organisations in the not for profit sector like CES is the getting to grips with the growing industry of Corporate Governance requirements in a proportionate way. Keeping an eye to your relevance, and avoiding complacency are important for your business offer.

Some luck and a good sense of timing is important though it is often quoted that ‘luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity’ or as we say, ‘you make your own luck’.

A final word of caution in that the task of sustainability is never complete. Like housework, it must be continually revisited. But an early indicator of its success, is that it becomes a shared aspiration, rather than an individual responsibility.

I hope that you can relate to some of these reflections and that this encourages you to put sustainability back into your organisational conversations if it has been overlooked or forgotten.

I want to thank you all for your consistent support of CES in the last decade and I look forward to joining the ranks of those who admire them on the next part of the exciting journey.

Best wishes,

Nuala.