How do we stop the hamster wheel to give environmental leaders time to reflect?

chief execs imageThis post is by Jon Cracknell, co-author of a new report from the Environmental Funders Network (EFN).

At the end of November the EFN published Passionate Collaboration?,  aggregating the responses of 140 UK environmental organisation chief executives to an EFN survey carried out earlier this year.  Many of the largest groups in the sector took part, along with smaller more specialised organisations.  To our knowledge, this is the first time that a survey of this kind has ‘taken the pulse’ of the sector.

A strong sector with a keen sense of the challenges ahead
The report reveals a sector of committed and professional environmentalists, with real strengths in terms of public trust, engaged volunteers and supporters, integrity, expertise and passion.

Sector leaders have a keen sense of the challenges they face in the coming years. Funding is at the forefront of these challenges, with a 5.2 per cent fall in real income between 2010-11 and 2011-12, and changes in the nature and source of funding. Increasing reliance on income from the corporate sector raises some issues, along with the rise in importance of contract income, leading to increased financial fragility in the sector.  Low salaries make it hard to secure and retain skilled individuals.

The survey shows that the sector’s resources are primarily focused on a traditional environmental agenda within the UK, often delivered at a local level, and on mainstream discourses of environmentalism; this is despite the recognition by chief executives of the need to grapple with more systemic challenges, such as global shifts in power and demographic changes. Funding cutbacks focus attention on the question of whether the sector is too fragmented and whether consolidation would be beneficial.

A number of skill sets and tools were identified, where additional support from funders might help. These include: economics and financial expertise; leadership and organisational planning; political lobbying expertise; strategic communications capacity, in terms of public opinion polling and framing;  horizon-scanning capacity; and training in systems thinking and systemic analysis.

Tension between the need to rethink approaches and  day to day demands
There is a clear tension between, on the one hand, a recognition of the need for changes in approach: to engage new constituencies, embrace social media, work from the bottom up, reframe messaging; and, on the other hand, the reality of life on the ‘hamster wheel’ day to day, with no resources for experimentation and a tendency to avoid risk, plus reliance on a core playbook of approaches, combined with an ever stronger evidence base.

Respondents wanted an increase in resources directed at redefining economic growth and progress, but it is unclear how this could best be achieved, assuming that philanthropic funders would be willing to provide such resources.  Likewise, it is unclear how the sector can currently discuss the way in which its resources are allocated geographically, or the best options for countering government preoccupation with growth at all costs?

The importance of collaboration
Running through the survey, and reflected in its title, is the question of how to promote more effective collaboration. Some see collaboration as a strength of the sector already, many agree it is an important attribute of the most effective organisations, and others fear for future collaboration in the context of falling income.

Many respondents touched on the need for some kind of safe space for joint reflection in relation to these topics, an opportunity to step off the hamster wheel. Here are some of their comments:

“…if we want to have greater cohesion and greater synergies and to make sure our actions are greater than the sum of parts, we may need support to make that happen.  Arguably existing networks don’t do that.”

“Day to day pressure of running organisations and campaigns and not enough time spent reflecting on what we have done and what we need to do next – ideally together.”

“Lack of funding also pushes organisations back to their ‘core business’ and [they] are less likely to explore new territory/skills or reach out to other organisations.  Which is actually what needs to happen (better co-ordination and more thinking out of the box in order to respond to current challenges).”

How can funders help?
EFN welcomes suggestions as to how philanthropic funders can best help to create space for these kinds of conversations, and ideas in response to the following specific questions: What form should it take?  Should funders be involved? How frequently would chief executives or senior managers want to interact? What are the best existing examples of structures that allow this reflection, either within the environment sector or beyond?  What case studies exist of successful, and unsuccessful, collaboration?

 

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