Dane County, Wisconsin likely has more organizations focused on environmental improvement per square foot of geography than any other county in the USA.
An early member of the “green community” was Sustain Dane. Like many non-profits, Sustain Dane grew out of the values of founders who shared a drive to make the world a better place. In 1998, attendees from a half-day session on The Natural Step with Torbjorn Lahti, the father of the Swedish eco-municipality movement, began meeting regularly. They established Sustain Dane to move Lahti’s eco-municipality concept forward locally.
Like many new non-profits, Sustain Dane’s business model was defined by projects a working board and single staff member wanted to take on. One notable project was development of the rain barrel, RainReserve™, used to divert rainwater from gutters into a water reserve for grass and garden. Over 2000 rain barrels were placed in the Dane County water shed in less than three years. Kits to convert locally purchased collection tanks into rain barrels (as well as complete rain barrels systems) are now sold online to eco-conscious home and commercial property owners.
Another example of Sustain Dane in action is its coordination of the City of Madison’s Mpowering Madison Campaign, started in 2007 to assist area businesses and individuals in reducing Madison’s carbon emissions by 100,000 tons by 2011. The aim is to make Madison the clean, green energy capital of the US. Over 3,000 individuals and 30 businesses have taken the Mpower Pledge to adopt a variety of well-defined steps toward carbon emission reductions.
In 2009, the Sustain Dane Board hired Kristen Joiner, a talented leader of social change initiatives as its Executive Director. An experienced social change leader, Joiner had been Co-founder and Co-Executive Director of the educational non-profit organization, Scenarios USA, an award-winning $1M organization that serves as a model for sex education, innovative school redesign and school engagement. The organization’s innovative business model partners Hollywood filmmakers with teachers and students to engage young people in their own health and education.
Her challenge is not unlike that of young for-profit start-ups: how to secure attractive, synergistic growth opportunities with sustainable funding. For example, Sustain Dane is exploring how to leverage the rain barrels into a business focused on helping homeowners build a completely resilient back yard. These explorations are part and parcel of business model innovation.
Where to start? Defining Sustain Dane’s strategic role will make all business model strategy sessions more focused and successful. A strategic role defines how a non-profit uniquely adds value to its community of stakeholders.
The role must be unique or else the non-profit falls into the commoditization trap facing so many for-profit companies. If you’re no different than others in the for-profit world, it’s impossible to earn attractive margins absent being the lowest cost provider. In the non-profit world, the saying goes, “No margin, no mission.”
Sustain Dane’s strategic role, according to Joiner, is to be the regional incubator and catalyst for concepts and initiatives that will make Dane County a more sustainable community. This role is highly consistent with Sustain Dane’s past. It also offers a promising future because it carves out a unique space in the multitude of local organizations focused on sustainability.
With its strategic role defined, Sustain Dane will be able to decide and execute a new business model strategy faster and more effectively. Revenue model considerations will be especially important in Sustain Dane’s business model strategy work.
Strategic role is a concept that extends to the for-profit world as well. The concept goes a long way in my mind to explaining why life-style companies succeed, the subject of my next blog. Over the next week, think about the strategic role you serve for your target markets.
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