On November 29, 2014, I was part of a panel at the CanRoots East conference hosted at Ryerson University. Entitled Crawling, Walking, Running: Distributed Organizing, the panel focused on how organizations empower members of the community to create the social, economic, environmental, and cultural conditions that they desire. Waterkeeper's contribution to the conversation focused on how to borrow from distributed organizing theories to further a charitable mission.
Here's what I presented.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper was founded in 2001 on the belief that we have good water laws and that, if those laws were consistently enforced, then everyone in our watershed would have access to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.
North American laws generally encourage public participation in implementation and enforcement, so we focused our attention on documenting violations of the law, commenting on pollution permits to strengthen them, participating in environmental assessment hearings, and charging polluters in court when necessary.
And we were successful: Our investigative work built the case for a $1-billion cleanup of radioactive waste near Port Hope, Ontario. It’s the largest cleanup of radioactive waste in Canadian history. Our investigation in Toronto forced the city to cleanup a landfill that was leaking toxins into the Humber River, killing fish right in the middle of one of the most important fish spawning runs in the city.
Then, around 2007, two things happened that forced us to take another look at our impact and to ask if we could do more.
First, scientists started raising alarm bells about the state of the Great Lakes, and the state of Lake Ontario in particular.
An important report came out concluding that Lake Ontario was in a “poor” state of health. And that things were trending down. It was “declining.” Stress mapping projects showed how Lake Ontario was on the verge of total collapse.
We started looking at what type of growth it would take for us to turn things around. We’d need to field more calls from the public, do more field patrols, investigate more pollution sites, and bring even more legal actions.
When we tallied up the cost of scaling our work up–to do enough of the work we were doing to turn things around on Lake Ontario–the estimated costs reached tens of millions of dollars. For an organization with a budget of about $500,000, that felt impossible.
So that question of impact was already in our minds when the foundation of our strategy was shaken. Between 2006 and 2014, every provincial and federal environmental law or process that we relied on to protect our watershed was changed.
The dismantling of environmental laws started as special protections for certain industries–most notably municipal sewage treatment plants, which generate more water pollution than almost anything else in the country.
Then the dismantling crept into the process by which approvals were issued, with more and more barriers to public participation.
Finally, and most recently, it led to the complete rewriting of federal environmental laws. The Navigable Waters Protection Act was rewritten, so that the word “Waters” isn’t even in its name anymore. The Fisheries Act was rewritten so that it only protects a tiny fraction of fish of monetary value. Those laws are as old as the country. And they’re shadows of their original selves.
What did that mean for our theory? Well, we no longer felt confident that we had strong enough water laws. We definitely didn’t feel like there was a commitment to enforcement on the part of government. In short, we couldn’t be confident that our enforcement activities alone would lead to a swimmable, drinkable fishable future.
We had to adapt.
We had to help create a context in which our work has greater impact, where we are not out there trying to save a watershed on our own.
And that means a form of distributed organizing.
The challenge for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper was figuring out who to engage and how to engage them without altering the core philosophy of our organization–that everyone has a right to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water, regardless of how much political, economic, or geographic clout they have. If we have to wage a political battle every time a tiny decision affects the future of the lake is made, we’ll never turn things around. We were absolutely committed to maintaining our commitment to fair, non-political work.
Which begs the question: How do you embrace engagement organizing when you aren’t 100% sure what you want the people you’re engaging with to do, or when they’ll need to do it, or even where?
Most of the blueprints on how to do distributed organizing focus on political campaigns, so we didn’t have a lot to go on.
That’s where platform thinking helped us.
Swim Guide was a gateway into this kind of engagement thinking. It is a beach water quality app that we built in 2011 to connect people on Lake Ontario to their beaches. It was the first non-legal public engagement program that we built, and it has been enormously successful. With the help of volunteer affiliate organizations, Swim Guide is now the most comprehensive beach service in the world, with more than 6,500 beaches in three languages in four countries and about 350,000 users.
Our affiliates program is a form of engagement organizing–we created a platform and offer training and support services to nonprofits who need a way to share water quality data with their community, want to highlight clean swimming areas, or want to raise awareness for chronic water quality problems. Affiliates use Swim Guide to protect public health, build support for remediation programs, develop their own local engagement programs, and raise money for their own recreational water protection work. It’s quintessential snowflake model organizing, even though we didn’t realize that’s what we were doing at the time.
The next iteration of Swim Guide will focus on organizing our users, empowering them to protect the local beaches that they love. That starts in 2015.
Our Water Leaders initiative is a new one–it’s more of an idea that can be woven into other projects than it is a program in and of itself. This is where you see the overlap between distributed organizing, platform thinking, collective impact, and the narrative-building trends that are the hallmarks of effective organizations right now.
If you’re going to do engagement organizing, you always need to have an answer to the question, “What’s next?” Someone loves your pitch or your message or your beach finder app, and they want to know, “What can I do next?”
The model that we used to have, the original Waterkeeper engagement model, just doesn’t work. You would tell people they had two options: 1) They could quit their jobs, move to a watershed without Waterkeeper, and start their own charity, or 2) they could give you money.
Those were the two options.
That’s a terrible way to build a community.
When we looked at our theory of change, one thing stood out–we don’t get to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water by getting more people to do the same thing. We get to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water by ensuring people from all sectors and all walks of life remember to think about the watershed when making decisions and choices.
You don’t have to run an environmental organization to be an environmentalist. A Water Leader can be a teacher, a bureaucrat, or a cement plant manager.
Our Water Leaders initiative is a way of demonstrating the core qualities that every water leader develops. Our theory is if we cultivate more water leaders, they will make choices we could never have imagined in circumstances we never could have predicted to do good that we never could have manufactured ourselves.
Pause for a second on the first quality–Water Leaders know their Watermarks. Personal story rooted in the belief that some waterbody, somewhere, has influenced your life. It’s shaped who you are. When you connect with that influence and find your Watermark, you find your own motivation for doing something about water issues. I’m guessing that’s true in every field, and it’s crucial to any kind of community or distributed organizing. You aren’t paying people to work for you. You aren’t standing over their shoulders cheering them on or giving them constant instruction. They need to be propelled by their own energy, to some extent. And one of the most powerful things you can do as an organizer is to help them find that motivation.
This program launches next year and it will be the ultimate test. Can you organize people around an idea and let the impact emerge? We think you can.
Which brings me to lessons learned.
Lesson #1: It has to fit. Distributed/engagement organizing works when it fits with your logic model, your theory of change. We fell into it because we realized that we needed to change our model if we wanted to have the impact that our watershed demands, and we adjusted our programs and our model accordingly. If there isn’t a good fit, or if you aren’t able to build your organization or programs around it, don’t do it.
Lesson #2: It isn’t easy. Organizing volunteers is not easier or cheaper than doing the work yourself, especially in the early days.
You may hear advisors say “Oh this will save us money, we can get volunteers to do the work and spend less time fundraising next year”, but that’s not how it works. Those benefits come later, when you start to scale.
In the meantime, be prepared for things to feel like they are slowing down. If this is new, be prepared for a steep learning curve. Organizing demands different skills, habits and for established organizations. Communications, storytelling, management and interpretation of data are core skills in a D.O. organization–you can’t fake those things, and it’s going to take resources.
Lesson #3: Understand your scale. This was a big one for us. First, the realization that our existing model didn’t scale. Second, the understanding that there are different ways to scale. Swim Guide is a model that is virtually identical from community to community. It’s a single system that we replicate with small tweaks. The Water Leaders initiative will be the exact opposite. The idea is ported from community to community, but what people choose to do varies wildly–poets write, activists make presentations to committees, naturalists document wildlife, children play at the beach–each is an important act, but we can’t tell people what to do or how to do it. It will emerge from them.
There’s a great book on this called Scaling up Excellence, which labels the two approaches “Catholicism” (replication an established model) and “Buddhism” (passing along a mindset and letting the “how” vary as needed).
Lesson #4: Get ready to fail.
With organizing work, you are going to get feedback much faster–often immediately–and you need to be prepared for that.
Failure is going to happen, at both micro and macro levels. And failure is a good thing. It means you are pushing yourself, trying something new, and learning.
Set your plan, monitor the results, and don’t become personally invested in the outcomes. Your job is to effect positive change, not to be right.
In the end, the work that we all do is so important that we owe it to the world to try.