Written by Stephan Vachon
This A\J issue on local action is highly relevant in these dire times. As the pandemic is raging we collectively appreciate the importance of local communities including the value to have domestic sourced products, particularly food, and the call on each other’s civic duty — interestingly all of these aspects are tenets of sustainable development. I suddenly realize that the famous tag line for Patrick Geddes “Think globally, act locally” is making a whole lot of sense.
Over the recent years, I was involved in some local initiatives and organizations either as a board member or simply volunteering my expertise and skills. The level of energy and the degree of commitment exhibited by these organizations’ staff and volunteers are simply astonishing. If these local organizations can extend their reach and increase their activities, it may easily lead to a significant and positive impact on the environmental wellbeing of our planet. To my mind, a quantum leap in these local organizations’ activities is becoming foundational to achieve our global environmental aspirations.
Despite such engagement by their internal stakeholders, several local environmental organizations may find it difficult to extend their reach and grow. Beyond the low funding that most of them are experiencing, the main reason, in my opinion, falls squarely on human resources —
Either we do not have enough people or we need specific skills and capabilities that most organizations do not currently have.
Several local environmental organizations simply do not have enough people power to achieve growth. Many of them trying to grow are faced with overextended staff and volunteers’ fatigue. That is often compounded by fiscal constraints leading to underpaid staff and not allowing to hire additional and qualified staff. Trying to grow in such circumstances can easily be detrimental to an organization and its mission. Experienced staff leave for a better working environment and volunteers reexamine their commitment. In turn, that is exacerbating the initial problem of overworking and fatigue getting the organization into a downward spiral.
The other challenge is often associated with the set of skills needed to grow that are not necessarily mastered within local environmental organizations. Don’t get me wrong here, I have interacted with wonderful executive directors and managers in these organizations with excellent leadership traits (better than mine for sure!), however nobody can be a specialist in everything (marketing, communication, finance, volunteer management…). And when you are not a specialist in tasks you have to complete, it takes more time and energy. What can be done?
“A quantum leap in these local organizations’ activities is becoming foundational to achieve our global environmental aspirations.”
I can think of two avenues to increase the local environmental organizations’ capacity to grow their activities and reach (i) the creation of formal channels of knowledge transfer across regions and (ii) a greater involvement of universities and colleges.
I noted over the years that very few organizations can rely on the experience of other similar organizations across our country. The organizations can certainly consult the different websites and gather information, but too often it is stuck to spend valuable time and resources unpacking the best practices and find ways to effectively implement them in their operations. In other words, there is frequently not a centralized entity that can collect and diffuse some kind of “how to” guide to the wider community. One example of such a formalized knowledge transfer entity is Green Economy Canada (www.greeneconomy.ca), which provides support for regions to adopt (and adapt!) a model that supports and incites local businesses and institutions to reduce their environmental footprint. Public agencies can also play that role. Either way, a portion of the government financial support needs to prioritize such centralized organizations.
Canadian colleges and universities enroll hundreds of thousands of students every year. Talk about human power at its best! These students have the skill sets and energy that can be very useful for local organizations. Marketing and communication students can devise effective outreach communication plans. Multimedia students can be leveraged to make the organizational message more ‘hip’ and reach the proper segment of the population. People studying the natural sciences might be able to increase the scale of conservation activities. While the universities and colleges have already contributed significantly to their respective local organizations (and still do), I believe more can be done specifically by inserting such students’ involvement within the different program curricula. Furthermore, maybe it is time for universities to more formally accept the implication of their faculty as part of their workload — too many of them are still using a rather old teaching-scholar model.
I can certainly dream of a day, in the near future, when knowledge hubs would be supporting all of our local environmental organizations. Hubs that might even be housed on university or college campuses. Perhaps major corporations would join these hubs and support by having their own specialists in marketing, communications, engineering, or finance developing and delivering training programs. This idea of leveraging our local environmental organizations for solving ‘global’ problems is feasible with a tad bit of imagination and the will to organize and support these organizations. We need these organizations to spread their reach… we need to support them to ‘quantum leap’.
Stephan Vachon is the Director of Western University’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability and the Chair of the Masters of Environmental and Sustainability. He is also an Associate Professor in Operations Management at the Ivey Business School.