Sustainability Patterns

Organizational Cornerstones

Organizational Cornerstones

Photo courtesy Heifer International

As an organization spend some time trying to understand your values.

In 1989 the staff at Heifer International was challenged to think about how Heifer’s mission is carried out worldwide. They wanted to identify the most important components of Heifer’s programs— those values and beliefs that make it more likely that the benefits of the projects are sustainable. Over a six-month period input was solicited from around the world. From this an initial list of values was drafted. This list was piloted during project evaluations in Guatemala. Some changes were made and twelve cornerstones made the final list. To help people remember them they used PASSING ON THE GIFTS as an acronym. Heifer’s cornerstones for just and sustainable development are:

Passing on the Gift


Sharing and Caring

Sustainability and Self-Reliance

Improved Animal Management

Nutrition and Income

Gender and Family Focus

            on the

Genuine Need and Justice

Improving the Environment

Full Participation

Training and Education


Your organization wants to make the world a better place. It has a passion for its cause and has had some success. It continues to face challenges as it moves forward in its good work.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the need the world presents. Your organization faces limits on time and energy.

Your organization has passion for an idea today, but what about tomorrow? Can this passion be sustained? Change is all around us and the organization is pulled in many directions. It seems that even the best-intentions and the hardest work and the greatest abilities are no match for the challenges being faced. Is it worth the time and energy? Is this really what we want to do?

Your organization must see itself clearly, as it is being pulled in different directions. It’s easy to sign on for too much or to have an unfocused approach. It’s hard to say “no” to communities in need.


As an organization spend some time trying to understand your values. Define your vision and mission statements. Use these as a basis for your organization’s actions. Everyone in your organization should contribute.

Someone in the organization must have passion for this task and must take ownership of the steps. It will involve compromise and openness so that all voices are heard.

Your organization, concerned with sustainable development, should make sure they has first defined its values—traits or qualities that represent the organization’s highest priorities and most deeply held driving forces.

The rest of your strategic framework should build on these values. They are the foundation, the cornerstones, for everything your organization does.

Organizations usually have a mission statement—a concise description that says why the organization exists—and a vision statement that describes what the organization wants to become.

Once the values and the mission and vision statements are in place, as your organization works with other groups, this framework will provide a way of moving forward. If we look at Heifer International, for example, when a group wants to partner with Heifer, the Cornerstones or values are shared with them. When groups begin planning their projects, they are introduced to the Cornerstones in a workshop and may choose some or all of these or create their own. Together the Cornerstones compose a holistic approach to development to which Heifer Project International aspires.

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This pattern will help the organization develop a better understanding of its values, its mission and vision. It will be better equipped to make decisions about whether or not to take on a given project. Taking time for the exercise will also help to evaluate whether passion for a new proposal can last. It takes a long-term commitment for real change.

Realize that an explicit statement of your goals will cause some people to look to other organizations that more closely address their concerns. A narrower focus could also point out some shortcomings in your organization. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Everyone has a unique contribution in any setting. It may mean you may have to work harder; you may have to fight the system a little more; you may need to recruit additional help. When you are challenged to succeed despite some obstacles, it often means you have the benefit of learning and developing.

Being explicit about your goals will help recruit suitable participants and might also help with fund raising. A clear statement of values, along with a mission and vision can give supporters a good elevator pitch.

You will also need an understanding of the work itself, the various domains and expertise required. You must develop Cultural and Environmental Awareness and Learn about Partner Organizations [1].

Effectiveness of an organization depends not only on its contributions, but on the environment. Both are continually changing. The result of this initial reflection is just the start. Continual reexamination of the organization and the development effort are required if you are to be successful in the long-run.

In their book about the Salvation Army [2], Robert Watson and Ben Brown answer the questions: How do we do what we do with such a small core of officer/managers? And how have we managed to do it for so long when so many other organizations with similar ambitions have come and gone? We don’t consider the two aspects of our mission, to preach and to serve, as separate from one another. We don’t serve people who are hurting only to preach to them. And we don’t preach without offering the example of service without discrimination. To us, the two obligations are inseparable. Some like to call it our holistic ministry—soup, soap, and salvation. But no matter how it’s characterized, this integrated ministry of religion and social work is still a distinguishing mark of the Army, even in this information age. When an organization becomes so large and serves so many, there is always the temptation to become so preoccupied with raising money and operating the machinery that you forget your “first love.” I am pleased to tell you that there are tens of thousands in the Army family across this country who still find their greatest joy in serving others in the name of Christ in the trenches of human need.

Delancey Street is a self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom. Started in 1971 with four people in a San Francisco apartment, Delancey Street has served many thousands of residents, now in five locations throughout the United States. The organization has a set of core beliefs that motivate all participants:

-          First and foremost, we believe people can change. When we make a mistake we need to admit it and then not run from it, but stay and work to fix the mistake. And though no one can undo the past, we can balance the scales by doing good deeds and earning back our own self-respect, decency, and a legitimate place in mainstream society.

-          We believe that people can learn to live drug free, crime free lives of purpose and integrity. Rather than following a medical model or a therapeutic model, we’ve developed an educational model to solve social problems. We teach people to find and develop their strengths rather than only focusing on their problems.

-          Rather than solving one issue at a time (e.g., drugs or job skills) we believe that all aspects of a person’s life interact, and all people must interact legitimately and successfully with others to make their lives work. Delancey Street is therefore a total learning center in which residents learn (and teach) academics, vocational skills, and personal, interpersonal, practical and social survival skills. We believe the best way to learn is to teach; and that helping others is an important way to earn self-reliance. Person A helps person B and person A gets better.

-          Delancey Street functions as an extended family, a community in which every member helps the others with no staff of experts, no “program approach.” Everyone is both a giver and a receiver in an “each-one-teach-one” process.

-          Economic development and entrepreneurial boldness are central to our model’s financial self-sufficiency and to teaching residents self-reliance and life skills.

-          Delancey Street is value-based in a strong traditional family value system stressing the work ethic, mutual restitution, personal and social accountability and responsibility, decency, integrity and caring for others in a pro bono publico approach.

Solar Cookers International (SCI) was founded in 1987 by a group of people in the sunny Central Valley of California. They pooled their solar cooking knowledge to produce manuals to enable others to build and use simple solar box cookers. SCI brought solar cooking to the attention of development and relief agencies. Publicity about SCI’s work spread abroad and brought them into contact with other nonprofit groups worldwide starting to promote solar cooking and to offer nascent information services to interested groups in the developing world. SCI’s unique roles in the early- to mid-1990s were in networking with a handful of peers and encouraging local solar cooking promotion efforts. In November 2007, SCI expanded its work but stayed within its solar cooking mission. It began a two-year pilot project to increase water quality awareness and introduce the Safe Water Package and the Portable Microbiology Laboratory to communities in western Kenya. Because of acute cooking fuel shortages, boiling water is often impractical in locations where household water sources are heavily contaminated. It takes approximately one kilogram of firewood to boil one liter of water. Yet, water must only be heated to 149°F (65°C) to be free from disease-causing microbes. This work has led to use of solar cookers as safe water tools. SCI’s expanded Mission Statement: Solar Cookers International promotes solar cooking and solar water pasteurization systems to benefit people and environments. Its goals:

1. Influence local, national and international agencies and related networks in support of solar cooking, water pasteurization and testing (SC/WP & T).

2. Develop international programs, in partnership with international agencies, government ministries, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations and/or community-based organizations, for the purpose of promoting SC/WP & T. (Secondary goal: Achieve independent spread of SC/WP & T in parts of Kenya.)

3. Facilitate broader access to SC/WP & T knowledge and enhance SCI expertise. (Secondary goals: Increase information-exchange and synergy among solar cooking promoters and experts worldwide; Market educational materials including solar cookers, ovens, instructional guides, books, DVDs and other products that focus on SW/WP & T.)

4. Partner with other relief agencies to assist refugees and disaster relief with SC/WP & T, training and follow-up services.

[1] This pattern has not been written.

[2] The Most Effective Organization in the U.S., Crown Business, 2001.

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