The 10 tests: sustainability with relevance

The need to cope with increased cost, compliance, ‘competition’ and other pressures on a community service seem at times relentless and sometimes there is a tendency to assume that it will all be right in the long run. However, it is important to regularly review how sustainable your organisation is. Just as important is the need to ensure it is not only surviving but is relevant and provides the best possible services to clients.

All community services like to feel they are going to be around for a long while and certainly those who work in a service would like to think the mission and vision they believe in will continue throughout the period they work there, and well beyond. In the private sector a small business might have considerably less than a fifty-fifty chance of survival but in a non-competitive environment surely this should guarantee that provided certain standards of service and costs of delivery are met, survival is assured? Being a community service does increase the chance of operating for a longer period of time, but it does not guarantee it. Indeed the evidence is that the permanency of many community services is not as secure as it might have been some years ago. In any case the real challenge is not just surviving but doing so in a strong and relevant way that means clients, staff and other stakeholders are getting the best service and outcomes possible in the sector. The challenge of sustainability is really one of sustainability with relevance.

What is sustainability with relevance?

The questions which need to be asked to ensure a community service is sustainable and relevant will vary somewhat depending on its size and particular situation, but the following may provide some guide. The 10 tests for sustainability with relevance:

  1. Income comes from more than one or two government contracts.
  2. The service’s yearly income is in excess of $3 million or if under this amount the service is the largest, or ‘best’, provider in its local area, district or service.
  3. There are reasonable contingency reserves of, say, 10 per cent of one year’s income.
  4. The amount of expenditure on developing staff and equipment, developing innovative programs, investing in IT and buildings and other operational factors that will support the future is at least 5 per cent of each year’s income. It is not enough to grow at the rate of the CPI as real costs of delivering programs and paying good staff exceed this. There needs to be a fund to invest in the future.
  5. Income is growing faster than the rate of inflation.
  6. The board has experience and members come from appropriate and diverse backgrounds.
  7. The CEO and senior staff have at least 10 years experience in the organisation or similar experiences.
  8. The organisation obtains a majority of the tenders it applies for and has retained its programs over the last five years.
  9. The delivery of the service to clients has been validated as being well above funding agency requirements and is evidenced by surveys, focus groups and other methods of client feedback.
  10. The turnover of staff is below sector average and certainly below 20 per cent a year.

How do we strengthen our sustainability with relevance?

As with the 10 tests for sustainability, there are 10 tests for strengthening your position:

  1. The service has a clear mission, vision and plan for moving forward that everyone is committed to and which has milestones and methods of checking progress.
  2. Risks are managed well so that some considered risk or innovations can be taken to move forward.
  3. The governance model means the board supports the CEO while monitoring the management actions effectively.
  4. Consideration is given to the scope of what is being offered to the community with as much innovation and diversity as possible—or the service is so good at what it does it is indisputably the leader in your area of expertise and service delivery.
  5. The CEO and board constantly scan the environment facing the service and understand the direction and actions of government policy—and respond to them.
  6. The board, CEO and senior staff develop an effective network of contacts and attend sector meetings and work their network.
  7. The quality of client services is benchmarked against the best offered and regularly monitored. The board and CEO place the quality of service as the number one item for attention.
  8. The service is run as a social business with the social goals and the financial goals appropriately balanced.
  9. The senior staff of the organisation have a strong leadership model that is based on focusing on the client with as much trust as possible for the staff—and as much empowerment as possible.
  10. There is enough time spent on considering the future of the organisation.


It is suggested that every program in a service and the service as a whole should review how sustainable and relevant it is at least annually. Use an analytical review to highlight long-term weaknesses and provide the framework for finding a better way forward for the organisation.

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