Should Nonprofits Publish a Sustainability Report?

Last August I wrote a piece on why nonprofits (used interchangeably here with NGOs) should publish sustainability reports, similar to those produced by most large corporations. I had just returned from my GRI certification course and was disappointed to learn that very few nonprofits embraced the standards. Despite the availability of NGO specific sector supplements to help guide the process and despite the increased public expectation for reporting and full disclosure, NGOs overall remain slow to the uptake.

There is reason to believe that the tide may be turning. Recently, Fulbright Academy joined an elite group of NGOs publishing sustainability reports, with GRI standards being the most widely used. Perhaps it is time to revisit some of the benefits for nonprofit sustainability reporting. I am open to discussion and look forward to hearing what other TriplePundit readers have to say on the subject.

Critics of the nonprofit field have long argued that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in the sector. Whether such claims are valid or not, could a sustainability report, outlining the group’s efforts to help people and planet, help to mitigate such arguments? If nonprofit program work has been criticized as being vague and the stewardship of funder dollars been called into question, could not this annual report help to defend against such arguments?

Further, the sustainability report could provide a more holistic view of the organization. If the purpose and mission of a particular organization is to protect and nurture the environment, that does not negate their responsibility to care for people, including their staff and those who might live and work in the areas where they implement their work. Conversely, community based organizations, such as those who care for the homeless or destitute, are not off the hook regarding matters of environmental stewardship. As it is with corporations, ecological sustainability is a responsibility for all organizations in all sectors, regardless of their stated mission. Feeding the homeless, while noble, does not give an organization a license to pollute, waste water or ignore steps for energy efficiency.  As I decide where to send my donation in support of Japan’s earthquake victims, could I be swayed to choose one international relief organization over another because Group A lets me know, via its sustainability report, that is ecologically sensitive, while Group B is singularly focused? Group A would receive my check.

Further, would a sustainability report not help to attract more donors, especially those from private or corporate foundations? Grant-makers perform extensive due diligence on organizations before selecting partners. This could include an analysis of group financials, past performance records, reputation, budgets, leadership, site visits, third party evaluations (such as GuideStar) and so forth and so on. Could a sustainability report not also be a source of intelligence and competitive advantage for nonprofits vying for limited donor funds? One more selling tool, promoting the work and culture of the nonprofit?

NGO reporting is in its infancy and I am optimistic that we will see growth in the area. As said, I am open to discussion so let’s hear what you have to say. Would nonprofit organizations, as well as their stakeholders, benefit from regular sustainability reports?


Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

8 responses

  1. Why wouldn’t NGOs publish sustainability reports? While there is of course something to be said for the cost and effort of producing them, it seems that everyone benefits from transparency.

    1. Do NGOs face the same concerns about credibility of their reporting? Amnesty, for example, used an external assurance process. The Fulbright Academy for Science and Technology assembled an External Advisory Panel and invited GRI reporting experts from Merck, the Social Investment Forum and the World Bank. And there is also the option of getting a GRI Check for the report. Which one will provide more credibility?

      1. Hi Mehrdad and Daniela,
        Thank you for commenting. Yes, anyone reporting will face concerns about credibility but that is already happening, at nonprofit organizations that do not report. That is why donors and funders often rely on 3rd party sources like Guidestar to rate and compare groups. Credibility is a concern for any organization. A sustainability report would provide another valuable source of comparative information.

  2. I am also very much FOR NGOs publishing a sustainability report. I work with NGOs (in Germany mainly) and I think it would be a good controlling tool for them AND for Sponsors and people giving donations or fundings.

    Thanks a lot for this post!!!

  3. I work for a large health care organization (60,000 staff) and I can tell you that sustainability reporting is a hard sell. One almost gets a sense of “We are already governed by many structures, why do we have to create a sustainability report to try to additionally prove the responsibility level we take?” But after nearly 20 years of experience NGO / Public Health Care, I can tell you that they all priortize the single bottom line in their decision making and should definitely be producing sustainability reporting of some sort. Health care is extremely waste ful and degrading to the environment. All in the name of human health and in compliancy with local regulations / laws. At the end of the day, the donors (government / private) and patients are simply not yet demanding this accountability or even taking it into consideration.

  4. I realize also NGO are able and commited to publish RSC reports. The point may be on what kind of report match better with the activity of an specific NGO. by example, on FSVE (my Foundation) we are working to carry out the Global Compact 10 ponit as a step to arrive to GRI reporting. Then, ‘baby steps’ might be the way.

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