One of the many insights gleaned from Third Sector New England’s Capacity Building Fund (CBF) is just how vital building relationships and developing trust are to successful cross-organizational work within and across nonprofits. Begun in 2004, CBF provides funding, technical assistance and peer-to-peer support to 5 or more groups to help them learn effective ways to collaborate around a common cause. By supporting the formation of these networks, CBF seeks to strengthen the organizations’ ability to confront challenges and maximize opportunities more effectively than the groups could individually.
In network theory, people who hold and develop relationships are called weavers. Weavers are people who span boundaries either within non-profit and other organizations or externally with other groups. They are the folks that people describe as “natural networkers” – they span both internal and external organizational boundaries.
Listening and Connecting
Meg Kerr has been central to 3 learning networks funded by the Capacity Building Fund. What is core to how Megg works is that she believes the sum is greater than the parts. And she knows that groups that share a similar concern (in this case the environment) can cross boundaries and work together – if someone takes the time and care to engage with the “parts.”
Meg has initiated, with others, several major statewide environmental initiatives (the most current being a transportation coalition) by carrying out listening projects. She takes the time to meet with and really listen to others. She does not come with a preconceived agenda to try and get them on board She, instead, slowly pieces together consensus about an agenda by listening to individuals and connecting them to each other.
Meg holds a degree in environmental biology and began working for North Carolina state government on water quality issues in 1980. When someone in the governor’s office wanted to start a program called Stream Watch, where people were asked to “watch” their rivers for water quality, Meg was asked to run it. The Stream Watch project was her first foray into citizen action and attempting to connect what government is doing to what people care about.
Meg quickly learned that Stream Watch was not a new idea. There were many citizens already watching their rivers – and the people knew more than she did. Meg says, “They did not need the government to make them real.” The project was an eye-opener and its lessons foundational in how Meg has approached her work over the last 2 decades.
After working for the Environmental Projection Agency in Washington, D.C., Meg and her husband wanted to move back to New England to raise their family. By 2004, Rhode Island had passed the Rivers Council Statute that created a rivers classification plan for and a charge for the empowerment of watershed groups.
Meg, who was already working on river quality monitoring projects, was interested in strengthening the voice of citizens volunteering in watershed and river associations – a vision she had built with Rupert Friday. Meg had previously met Rupert, who was coordinating the state’s land trust association, when they both worked at the same quasi-government coastal resource oversight group. They solidified a friendship there that led to their discussions of an engaged citizenry. Now she was leading the state’s Rivers Council, and Rupert was leading the land trust association.
Rupert and Meg thought bigger than just their particular environment niche – be it land or watershed/river preservation. They could each see more similarities between the fields than differences.
- Both efforts were grassroots; the organizations mostly all volunteer.
- Both land trust and watershed groups were equally concerned with the issue of conservation.
- Their hope for the world around them was similar: watershed groups own land; and land trusts protect rivers.
Rupert and Meg began collaborative work that continues to this day.
Together they developed a conference that brought together the mostly volunteer watershed/river and land trust groups for co-education. The highly successful conference attracts over 300 people each year .
Their work together led to a vision for a project that focused on developing back office support that would cross boundaries among watershed groups and land trusts which the Capacity Building Fund included among its very first cohort of grantees. The effort and work has been carefully documented over the last 6 years. People have met monthly since 2004 and have learned a tremendous amount about what it takes to share back office services.
Today, as a result of this work, 7 groups share donor management software. And they are moving to a user group listserv as the groups take over their coordination and Meg and Rupert step back.
In 2005, the Rhode Island Foundation convened the state’s environmental groups for a discussion about how they could work together to have a stronger political voice in the state. A diverse group of environmental and quality of life organizations met regularly for months, discussing topics and exploring whether a new coalition would be possible. Meg, now working for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, facilitated many of these early meetings and worked off-line with members of the group to explore common ground. There was a lot of turf, and it was hard to find a topic on which they could all agree to work.
Again, through previously built relationships, Brown University Professor Emeritus Harold Ward approached Meg and asked if the group could work on the issue of water management. Harold and Meg had both worked on this issue in the past. The State Water Resources Board had facilitated almost 100 stakeholders organized in a dozen committees to explore the issue of water management and water allocation, but none of the recommendations had been implemented.
Advocacy was needed, but it was not a top issue of any one environmental organization. The timing was perfect to put the issue of water management on the political agenda. Amgen, a leading biotechnology firm, had just been refused increased water for their production plant in Rhode Island. They had approached the legislature asking them to pass a law entitling them to the water.
Once again, relationship was more important than creating a massive structure for carrying out the work, something the Capacity Building Fund also believes. If Meg had not built the relationships she had over time and, more importantly, been approachable, then Ward may not have turned to her with his idea for the group. By being a listener focused on engaging others for common purpose rather than imposing a “leader’s agenda” on others, she was the one he turned to. She had been spending lots of one-on-one time with individuals trying to pick up on what might be the common agenda among them. Professor Ward knew that Meg was the connector – a type of leader, but not necessarily the leader at the top. Someone who could connect across boundaries and get something done. Possibly without the role Meg played the group would not have successfully stopped undemocratic “water rights” legislation from passing.
As the Coalition for Water Security came together, the recognition was that environmental groups needed a louder voice, to learn to advocate well and to believe that working together was an important part of their work. The group checked in on strengthening the collaboration as much as it did on the results of its collective deliverables. Process and outcomes were co-equal goals of the project. Meg feels that the coalition became successful because of this equal emphasis and the time spent reflecting upon the quality of the working relationships.
This coalition, with one success under its belt, asked, What next?
The group had learned from its last attempt and did not set up a super structure of committees this time. Meg and several others began engaging stakeholders of all stripes around what they cared about and wanted to see done, identified key issues, and in a 3-hour meeting the group came together and selected transportation as their next collaborative issue. They named their new collaboration the Coalition for Transportation Choices.
Key Tips Meg Has Learned
- Engaging people one-on-one at the beginning of projects is more important than calling meetings
- Collaborative funding makes leaders take the collective work more seriously
- Transparent, proactive communications keeps people engaged
- Think about different ways of leading: top-down is a difficult way to build collective work that has community impact
- Be organized about your organizing
- Don’t think you’re irreplaceable – build strength and capacity in others
A portion of the groups who had been involved with the water security issues now became a core to crafting an agenda that opened up the work outside of environmental groups and engages others – like businesses who rely on a mobile workforce, and low and moderate income people who rely on public transportation. Meg’s own listserv has approximately 500 people on it – all the groups are educating their networks and engaging thousands of people in transportation issues.
The “network” building capacity has morphed with each round that Meg has helped to catalyze. Meg says that what took a year for the Coalition for Water Security – choosing an issue to work on and implement – was reduced to a 3-month cycle of talking, meeting and deciding in part due to lessons she personally learned. But success came mostly because the groups had woven deeper relationships with each other. They had seen the collaborative process succeed and were more trusting (and eager to collaborate again).
Meg’s own path of envisioning groups coming together had grown from her collaborative efforts with Rupert across 2 environmental fields, to a collaboration that involved all of the state’s environmental groups, to a third collaboration that was extending beyond the boundaries of the traditional environmental groups and touching upon those parts of other organizations that touched their agenda: finding a patch of common ground from which diverse groups could work to effect change at the community level.