Sustainability Appraisal

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Nick Plant
University of the West of England, Bristol

There are many limitations to the take-up and use of information and communications technologies (ICT) in non-profit organisations. Technical, social and management issues are frequently involved, but the complex, inter-connected mix of factors at work is often confusing. There isn’t a common language for understanding and modelling a particular organisation’s situation. Furthermore, until understanding is achieved, action-planning and change is even more problematic. However, ideas of sustainability drawn from the worlds of sustainable development, sustainable communities and environmentalism are familiar to many civil society activists and non-profits. Can these ideas be imported to form a holistic sense-making framework for understanding non-profit ICT use? More important, can the use of sustainability indicators also help inform action-planning and change, on the basis that diagnosis is half way towards a cure?


This pattern has emerged from extensive research, development and consulting on ICT in non-profit organisations (Plant, 2003). Non-profit organisations are key to organised social action and increasingly reliant on ICT in pursuing their missions, especially as they move from internal, efficiency-oriented, applications to those that support service delivery externally. But small non-profits are frequently vulnerable to, yet dependent upon, external expertise due to limited internal knowledge. Outside support is, furthermore, often technically-biased and solutions-focused. There is a need to facilitate internal capacity development and learning, especially on the organisational and political, not just technical, factors associated with ICT. The notion of sustainability as imported into this field embraces a holistic range of organisational, social and technical factors. These affect success and autonomy in the use of ICT, as well as technological longevity. The application of sustainability indicators to appraise ICT use in non-profits should interest both non-profit staff and outside helpers committed to a facilitative approach. Those needing a holistic understanding of a particular organisational situation, and those looking to move towards action-planning for change and improvement in ICT use, should benefit.


A sustainability model was originally constructed, as an analytic abstraction for research purposes, to model the suggestion that three main factors, each with sub-factors, might explain sustainability or its absence in non-profit ICT.
The top-level factors were inspired by the triple bottom line in sustainable development (Henriques & Richardson, 2004) combined with information systems theory. They are associated with longevity (technical factors which affect IT quality and life expectancy), success (management factors which affect the overall impact of ICT use on the organisation) and autonomy (empowerment factors which affect the extent of appropriate relationships with outside expertise). A three-segment graphical representation was created to summarise and integrate these factors visually.

A method of appraising sustainability operationally in any given non-profit was derived from the theoretical model. A questionnaire asks respondents to agree or disagree with assertions associated with sustainability in each of the three main areas, using a five-point Likert scale. Drawing on Bell and Morse's (1999; 2003) approach to sustainability indicators, these qualitative responses are plotted on a three-segment diagram similar to the theoretical model. This results in a visual impression of sustainability, as subjectively interpreted by the organisational stakeholder(s) taking part.

A full "Information Systems Healthcheck" service was then designed (Plant, 2001). The consultant first gathers and preliminarily analyses sustainability appraisal data from completed questionnaires. A face-to-face meeting then takes place, at which feedback is offered, and the situational diagnosis is discussed with client representative(s). The consultation then moves towards initial action planning and change. Possible areas for improvement are drawn directly from the graphical sustainability appraisal "plot" and respondents’ annotations.

Specific action-plans that might bring about change and improvement are identified, focusing on segments where sustainability appears to be weakest. The follow-up to this part of the process involves a wider cross-section of the client organisation's staff being canvassed if possible in order to confirm, enrich or challenge the situational diagnosis and the action-planning steps emerging.

Evaluation of the healthcheck service suggests that it leads to new insight for client organisations. Key phrases appearing on evaluation questionnaires emphasise the strengths of a “completely outside perspective” that “forces the issue” to give participants an “understanding of context” and “make recommendations” from an “unbiased viewpoint” following “critical review”.

Insight appeared to be based largely on bringing to the surface ideas that were already latent within the organisation, newly articulated and legitimised as a result of the engagement. It was therefore argued that internal capacity can be unlocked by employing the external facilitator in the role of a ‘sounding board’. Drawing out multiple perspectives through this participative approach appeared particularly important.

The crucial requirement for the client to take ownership of the process cannot yet be taken for granted. For this reason and others, further action research is needed to confirm or challenge the findings. Follow-up work is time-consuming and demanding for clients, particularly if, as suggested during the healthcheck, the consultant’s definitions of ‘health’ and ‘sustainability’ are to be challenged, reviewed and appropriated to suit local conditions and culture.

The qualitative basis of this work also leads to its own challenges. The most effective sustainability appraisals have been those involving questionnaire responses from multiple stakeholders that express divergent views. Productive outcomes have resulted from the debate and discussion over the multiple subjective interpretations of sustainability that have emerged. Focusing on disagreement as well as agreement can of course generate conflict instead of consensus, so requires sensitive facilitation and careful management.

Furthermore, given that as follow-up clients are encouraged to engage organisational stakeholders at all levels (a move that could generally be considered ‘healthy’), such conflict can be problematic for those in less powerful positions. More generally, the process may influence the existing power balance; this could either be positive or negative in any given organisation. As a minimum, this possibility must be taken into account.


Sustainability ideas were originally imported into the non-profit ICT field in order to construct an explanatory model for research purposes, but their utility goes beyond this. The use of sustainability indicators has led to a practical grounded tool for understanding real-world non-profit ICT situations.

A common language for making sense of and modelling the organisational, social and technical factors involved in ICT sustainability in individual non-profits is now available.

But it has not only been used successfully to achieve situation diagnosis and understanding, it has also led non-profits towards practical action for change and improvement in ICT use. Although there is more work to be done, the core method, an "information systems healthcheck", involves a visual representation of sustainability that promotes accessibility, and a facilitative approach that can lead to empowerment and organisational learning. Furthermore, researchers concerned with industrial or other sectors have observed similarities with ideas such as capability maturity modelling, and this work may well have application beyond the non-profit sector.

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