Marketing the Concept of Sustainability

White Paper:  Marketing the Concept of Sustainability



The focus of this paper is to incorporate best practices from around the globe to determine how to market the concept of sustainability to the various stakeholders of the YMCA through the use of the Internet.  Inherently, each stakeholder in the YMCA will have a different perspective of what constitutes the on-going success of the organization.  Although there are some practices that transcend the varying perspectives, others must be modified in order to effectively communicate with the three distinct stakeholder groups.


We have broadly classified the stakeholders of the YMCA into three major groups: the YMCA, the community, and donors.  The YMCA consists of all employees, volunteers, and managers in the organization. In today’s changing business landscape, employees no longer stay at a company for most of their working years.  They switch jobs, professions, and continuously develop their skill set as their career advances.  While this is very beneficial for the individual, a company’s effort to push their culture upon them has become even more difficult.  Convincing employees to adopt a new culture is even more difficult.  This is the direction in which the YMCA is traveling.  While sustainability can be used as a marketing tool, the YMCA’s members and community cannot be leveraged without first engaging its employees.  Marketing sustainability to the managers, employees, and volunteers of the YMCA presents a difficult challenge.

The community consists of the members of the YMCA and the people from the surrounding areas who are either directly or indirectly affected by the actions and success of the organization. The YMCA must first analyze, define and articulate the message it wants to communicate to the community about sustainability. This message could be used to raise awareness on the concept of sustainability, describe the efforts of the YMCA in becoming more sustainable as well as how sustainability relates to the overarching mission of the organization, and to express what the average person can do to become greener.

The donors consist of any individuals or non-governmental organizations that provide sources of funding for the continuation of the YMCA.  Similar to a for-profit business venture, a nonprofit organization’s mission and operations may evolve as key goals and milestones are set and achieved. With the onset of the digital age, donors are better informed about possible organizations to invest in.  As a result, it is important for the YMCA to keep current and potential donors abreast of any organizational changes that occur, especially in regard to sustainability, so that they understand the impact that they have or can have on the organization and within its community.  In addition, providing this information helps to maintain healthy, long term relationships with donors.

Role of Digital Technology and the Internet

In the past decade, the Internet has become the most popular mode of communication because of its customizable and interactive nature. A few Internet tools that have been shown to help foster sustainability are described below.

Sustainability reports: The first step for an NPO like the YMCA is to begin sustainability reporting.  This starts with creating and making available a sustainability report integrated with the organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategy, keeping in mind that its purpose is to influence external perceptions and encourage interaction with all stakeholders. Building the mission of the NPO into the report mobilizes the workforce by aligning the employees with the organization’s new direction.  Fullbright Academy, a non-profit organization, adopted sustainability reporting and had its report evaluated by GuideStar, an organization that gathers and publicizes information about nonprofit organizations[1].  As a result, Fullbright Academy received extensive news coverage.  The YMCA can be evaluated by GuideStar as well for comparable results.  For $100 per month, the YMCA could begin a subscription, and GuideStar would continuously review the YMCA’s progress toward sustainability and report its findings to the media, thereby generating increased awareness of the YMCA’s efforts.

The content of the sustainability report can range from the discussion of relevant sustainability topics such as the effect of the earthquake in Japan, to an in-depth description of the organization, sustainability goals and progress toward those goals.  For example, Vodafone, a popular mobile services provider in Europe and Asia, offers a very detailed sustainability report containing a full description of the company, its services, and its functional areas, including any relevant socio-economic and environmental issues in order to generate an increased amount of stakeholder feedback[2].  One part of Vodafone’s sustainability report that would likely benefit the YMCA is the Strategic Objectives section.  It contains a table that summarizes objectives ranging from short term to long term that will drive Vodafone’s sustainability plan and promote innovation within the organization.  The YMCA can use the same approach by creating its own strategic objectives, which would foster employee engagement and show the organization’s progress toward its goals.

Many companies have chosen to only offer this report online for two reasons – it saves paper and it is much easier to update regularly over the course of the year. The format of the report is just as important as its contents.  BASF, the world’s leading chemical company creates their sustainability reports in HTML format[3].  This format typically contains a blend of pictures, embedded videos and sound clips, and other multimedia tools to ensure reader engagement; it is much more visually appealing and allows large amounts of information to be taken in and processed more easily by the reader.  In using the HTML format, the YMCA can potentially benefit from improved reader engagement as well.  It is very important to update the sustainability report consistently to not only keep stakeholders abreast of new information and developments, but also to give them a macro perspective of the organization’s efforts toward becoming more sustainable.

Online Communities and Open Forums:  When used in conjunction with a sustainability report, a web-based forum becomes far more effective in providing information to and soliciting information from an organization’s stakeholders.  In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the YMCA would simply need to add a feature to its website that allows for two-way communication.  This could be in the form of a blog, a wiki, or even a live web-chat.  Since the YMCA already has a Twitter account, the blog feature would surely be familiar to them; the YMCA would then need to post topics on key topics to begin a discussion.  Tools like blogs, wikis, and web-chat would encourage stakeholders to voice their opinions, concerns, and ideas relating to the organization and its sustainability efforts.  In addition, the YMCA could record the feedback it receives for use in both strategic and tactical decision making and to post to its website for further discussion. One of the most substantial benefits of producing a sustainability report and using the aforementioned methods of online communication is that it creates organizational transparency.  The Interactive Marketing Agency looked at 86 companies in the S&P 100 and noted that the companies that have maintained some level of communication on the topic of sustainability benefited from increased stakeholder engagement due to more transparency[4].  This was also shown to increase stakeholder trust in the organizations and to build the organizations’ respective brand images.

Customizable content: The Internet age has encouraged the development of a new kind of stakeholder, who actively and critically participates in the creation and modification of any information touch. To harness the potential of mass participation, the YMCA needs to be able to anticipate its information needs and satisfy them immediately. Because different stakeholders have different perspectives on the organization, they should be offered the opportunity to specifically study the data they deem relevant.  For instance, the British energy company Centrica, includes a function that allows people to pick and choose which sections of their corporate social responsibility report they would like to view[5].  Customizable reports and easy navigation on the YMCA’s website would empower donors by more easily providing them with the specific information they require to select a beneficiary.

Sustainability Integration into Organizational Strategy

In order for the YMCA to communicate sustainability, they will first need a strategic policy that can serve as a blueprint for future initiatives.  Timberland Company serves as a great example of the type of strategy and tactics needed for the implementation of sustainable initiatives at a non-profit organization like the YMCA.  As a designer of variety outdoor and athletic footwear, Timberland has been extremely active in promoting green projects, planting trees, and helping communities.  In order to promote sustainability to their employees, they put together the GREEN initiative[6].  This acronym presents itself in five different areas:

  • Grassroots – Their service projects are rooted in community-based leadership, knowledge and needs-based assessment to inform all stakeholders of the organization’s vision and sustainable goals and objectives.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Timberland used recycled/repurposed materials whenever possible and recycled waste from service sites.
  • Engagement – Timberland achieved scale and long term sustainability through engagement of local and relevant stakeholders by using a variety of promotional tactics.
  • Education – Timberland provided sustainability education to stakeholders both internally and externally, stating that it is absolutely critical to ensuring the long term sustainability of projects and green communities.
  • Neutral – This represents Timberland’s progress toward its goal of carbon neutrality.

The YMCA can benefit tremendously from applying many of these concepts to its strategy.  By integrating sustainability into the strategy of the organization, each of Timberland’s stakeholders understood the culture, values, and actions they needed to take to be an active part of the organizational community.  With this in place, Timberland employees planted over 1 million trees and plan to plant 3 million more by 2014.  Like Timberland, the YMCA would need to form a strategy that has full support of upper management.  The strategy would then trickle down to the lower levels of the organization and through the community, revealing the tactics that have been put in place to enhance the sustainability of the organization.

As a supplement to incorporating sustainability into the organization’s strategy, employees need motivation before they will engage in green practices.  In 2007, EBay provided motivation for its employees and other stakeholders by instituting green teams[7].  Since their inception, these teams have grown to more than 2,400 employees in 23 countries.  Each team engages in a variety of tasks from removing Styrofoam cups in the break rooms, to encouraging the addition of solar panel systems; one such solar panel system was installed in the San Jose, CA headquarters.  The YMCA can benefit from green teams because it not only engages employees, but it also aligns them with the goals of their organization so that they feel the positive effect they create.  The YMCA focuses on the wellness of its members and community, and would therefore benefit greatly from a program such as the one above.  This type of program would provide an effective means of inspiring the employees of the YMCA to go above and beyond their current level of engagement.

In conclusion, there are many ways to engage the various stakeholders of an organization.  By following the best practices of the organizations that most closely relate to the YMCA, the goal of becoming more sustainable is more easily attainable.  Some key steps that the YMCA might take include tactics such as sustainability reports, online communities & open forums, customizable content and organizationally strategic initiatives such as a green initiative or green teams.

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[1] “Fullbright Academy Joins NGO GRI Reporting Progress.” PRIZMA. March 23, 2011.

[2] “Pressing Forward: Vodafone Group Plc Sustainability Report.” Vodafone. March 31, 2010.

[3] “We Shape the Future: Report 2008 – Economic, Environmental, and Social Performance.” BASF. March 10, 2009

[4] GreenBizStaff.  “Survey of S&P 100 Identifies Best Practices for Sustainability Communications.” October 15, 2008

[5] Centrica.  “Download Centre.” <>

[6] “Timberland’s Green Standard.” Timberland.

[7] Howell, Park. “Feeling All Green and Tingly Inside: How to Promote your Corporate Sustainability Initiative Internally.” July, 7 2010.