Sustainable development and the voluntary sector
Sustainable development involves balancing people’s current and future needs with the limited resources of the planet.
All voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) exist to address needs in some way, but most non-environmental VCOs find it difficult to link their core work with sustainable development.
In early 2011, NCVO ran a short project to explore what sustainable development really means for VCOs. It considered whether sustainable development has any direct relevance to the missions of non-environmental organisations.
The project included:
- desk research
- an expert seminar bringing together key environmentalists, voluntary sector support providers, funders and government departments.
What we found
Problems with the concept
Although there is general agreement about the overarching meaning of sustainable development and its three strands - social, economic and environmental - there is tension and ambiguity below the surface.
Many non-environmental VCOs are interested in sustainable development but most of these organisations focus on their environmental performance eg reducing carbon emissions, using fair trade and green supplies, or helping to look after the local environment. Most struggle to connect sustainable development to their core activities.
Mission and sustainable development can link
The core work of non-environmental VCOs can contribute to the three strands of sustainable development. Links to the social strand are likely to be strongest and can include:
- improving the quality of life for current and future beneficiary groups
- contributing to the creation of strong local communities that are able to adapt to a less resource intensive way of life.
Watch this video to hear from seminar participants why sustainable development matters to non-environmental organisations.
Below the radar contributions
Many VCOs are likely to be contributing to sustainable development through their core activities without recognising it.
Not all VCO work contributes to sustainable development
This project showed the potential for VCOs to contribute to sustainable development. But not all organisations will be doing so. For example, a VCO may be addressing the needs of current service users without considering future beneficiaries. There may also be other work which sits outside the sustainable development remit.
This investigation identified a range of implications for the voluntary sector, which could lead to:
- asking VCOs to reframe the way they think about their work, in sustainable development terms
- asking VCOs to do different mission-related work to contribute more fully to sustainable development
- increased promotion of the benefits to VCOs of engaging with sustainable development
- sharing examples of practice to increase understanding
- prioritising support on this topic for those VCOs keen to engage.
The report makes three recommendations:
- Creation of an alliance to promote and explore further the relevance of sustainable development across the voluntary and community sector
- Development of an awareness, training, resources and support programme
- Engagement of funders.
Download the sustainable development and the voluntary sector report (PDF, 237KB)
This initiative was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
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