The Delaware River Watershed Initiative
Fifteen million people rely on the watershed for drinking water. Its purity depends on the ecological health of the landscape – forests, farms, suburban and urban areas – and the rivers that flow through it.
Since initiating the project, the foundation has recruited more than 50 nonprofits to participate, including land trusts, nature centers, academic institutions and advocacy groups. It’s a complex web of relationships designed to address a really complex problem.
In order to manage all that complexity, they recruited a longtime partner, the Institute for Conservation Leadership, to help organize and facilitate the network.
“Because we were so focused on getting the science right, we neglected to think about how fifty organizations could best work together on an initiative of this scale,” says Andrew Johnson, Program Director at the William Penn Foundation. “ICL was instrumental in fostering collaboration among our partners. This initiative is both ambitious and innovative, and in many ways we’re flying the plane while we’re building it. With ICL’s help, we’re flying it a lot better.”
“We’ve catalyzed an enormous amount of activity,” said Peter Howell of Open Space Institute, one of the leadership groups in the network. “Collectively, we’re doing more and we’re moving faster than any group could have done individually.
“ICL’s role has been essential,” he adds. “They highlight the ‘how’ of our work, not just the ‘what.’ Ultimately, that’s just as important.”
This is the alchemy of collaboration. When we focus on strengthening the network – better communication, clear structure, developing new leaders – all that collaborative energy pays off. “Small organizations value being part of something bigger,” says Johnson, “and that only works for us due to ICL’s mediation and facilitation.”
With the Delaware River project – essentially a big network comprised of smaller networks – we’re using every tool in our toolbox, including consulting, training, coaching, research, and meeting facilitation skills.
“ICL understands organizational tissue,” says Howell. “Our nonprofit provides the conservation content; they provide coordination and collaboration services. They’re the mortar between the bricks, holding the whole project together.”
“ICL was uniquely suited for this work in the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, no question. It was obvious to us that we needed an organization that had the expertise drawn from their work across the country. We needed their bandwidth and their ability to put people first in the system. They have been, in short, the bow that tied this bold water quality initiative together.”
Andy Johnson, William Penn Foundation
Across Illinois, the landscape is threatened by a combination of development, pollution, and other pressures. A patchwork of protected lands – parks, forests, conserved areas – is set aside to preserve biodiversity, habitat, open space, and recreation opportunities.
The key word is “patchwork.” Until recently, there’s been little effort to connect these fragments into a larger, more resilient network.
Vital Lands Illinois was created by the Grand Victoria Foundation to both preserve threatened places and create opportunities to connect them into a larger conservation vision for the state. ICL was invited by the foundation to help plan, convene, and facilitate the Vital Lands Illinois network, which now includes a broad mix of nonprofits and government agencies.
“The land is fragmented, but the environmental community was even more fragmented,” says Pen DauBach of Clifftop, a land conservancy in Southern Illinois. “From the start, ICL provided facilitation services, trained us to build consensus, and helped to keep things focused.”
ICL’s involvement has yielded increasing synergy throughout the network, according DauBach. “Our individual leadership is stronger,” she says, “which means our organizations are stronger. We’re protecting more land. Because of the network, groups are coordinating their efforts to preserve larger blocks, which has a greater conservation impact. We’re working more effectively with state agencies.
“It’s amazing to see how 60 organizations coalesced – and it wouldn’t have happened without ICL.”
“We heard that groups needed space and support to come together in fundamentally different ways to shape how conservation happens,” said Elizabeth Cisar, former director of the land protection program at Grand Victoria Foundation. “We needed a system that provided support, services, public engagement and connectivity – soup to nuts conservation.”
When a staff retreat was on the horizon for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary in 2017, they decided to bring in ICL for facilitated support. Executive Director Jen Adkins said, “Engaging ICL was very straightforward – they are familiar with our challenges, and were quick to suggest tools and techniques to address them, within our budget.”
Jen appreciated how creating the retreat was a shared process. “ICL provided thoughtful and practical ideas and tools, but also trusted my instincts on what would or wouldn’t work for our team.” She notes that ICL designed and implemented an agenda with “just enough pre-work to get our team excited and involved.”
Because of ICL’s effective facilitation, Jen and her team could “truly and fully participate.” She adds, “The retreat struck a nice balance between going deep to address some big issues, but also resulting in some practical actions to implement immediately and enable working on the bigger issues over time.”
“ICL gave us the opportunity to see ourselves – and what we need to strengthen our team and take on our challenges – just a little more clearly. With the right leadership team in place, and some of our most ambitious work just getting underway, I feel that our organization (and watershed!) is poised for greatness.”
National Heritage Areas
Maybe you’ve noticed those brown signs as you travel the interstate highway system telling you about entering a National Heritage Area or Corridor? These special places are where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form a nationally important landscape. Designated and supported by the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas depend on local groups for their programming, development resources, and public engagement.
In 2017, ICL was invited to convene National Heritage Area groups in Yuma, Chicago, and Philadelphia to explore ways to proactively build partnerships, generate innovative ideas for engaging local communities, and become more resilient, connected, and sustainable for the work ahead.
Dan Rice, President of the Ohio and Erie Canalway, reflected, “The reason we selected ICL is because they are really the leaders in nonprofit technical assistance regarding organizational development, leadership development, and capacity building. They know the best practices out there in the environmental nonprofit field. They do an excellent job of listening.”
Dan emphasized that ICL’s customized approach is what deepened the impact of the trainings. “We work with a lot of consultants, and there is a tendency for them to take the cookie cutter approach. ICL took into account the existing cultures, what was working well within the organization, and what wasn’t. They did it very effectively. They were excellent in person trainings with a lot of engagement.”
“That’s one of the greatest strengths ICL brings: they bring a fresh perspective to each issue and each project they work on and they are very diligent about listening to the client.”
Dan reflects fondly on his other experiences with ICL, including leadership training. “There are still principals from that training that I apply in my work. Much of my success I’ve had as an executive in my organization is due to the great training and skills that ICL has shared with me and I have in turn shared with others. I owe a lot of my success to ICL.”
Urban Sustainability Directors Network
In coordination with others at the USDN, Matt Gray, Chief of Sustainability for the City of Cleveland, decided the time was right to bring together representatives from nearly two dozen cities to target sustainable economic development.
When considering facilitators, “Having that technical background and understanding of sustainability made ICL stand out,” recalls Matt. “ICL being able to come into complex situations and being able to navigate that, especially in the sustainability space, was important to us. ”
Matt notes that ICL’s versatility was key to objectives of the convening. “I also valued ICL’s openness to come into any situation. There is a large toolbox there, and they know how to pick the best tool for the situation. They are grounded in thinking both philosophically and strategically around bringing groups together to do more than they could do separately.”
Through working with ICL, the convening planners were able to not only have a more effective gathering, but enhance their work together in advance of the convening. With ICL’s help, Matt says, “We realized a lot of the work needed to be done before the workshop took place. At a high level we understood the need, but ICL helped drill down what the objectives were and how to reach them. Because of the pre-planning work, we went into that workshop not having to waste a lot of time.”
“We turned to ICL to help organize and facilitate the meeting, and they did not disappoint. They asked the right questions of the project team to refine the meeting objectives, get the right people in the room, and create an action-oriented agenda.”
“In the end,” says Matt, “ICL helped advance the conversation on how cities can create economic development rooted in sustainability, and they strengthened the relationships between myself and the economic directors.”
Cynthia, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) in New Orleans, LA, is no stranger to crisis. When the BP oil spill hit the Gulf in 2010, Cynthia and her organization were ready for action.
“Sadly, Hurricane Katrina prepared us for this,” she says. “We had already ramped up our monitoring capability and advocacy roles.”
Now, GRN is a central player in independently monitoring the release of oil and the clean-up efforts. “We have been out there since day one,” says Cynthia, as they work to try to determine the impact of the spill and the efficacy of the clean-up work that is being done. GRN is also urging congressional action to increase regulation and change the way the oil and gas industry do business.
Prior to being an Executive Director, Cynthia was a Campaign Director with experience as a litigator. She led successful campaigns to reduce wetlands losses in Louisiana and Mississippi and force EPA to start addressing the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. “When I transitioned to being an executive director, it was clear to me that I didn’t have the training,” said Cynthia. “I was an advocate, an activist.”
That was when a colleague from the Environmental Support Center recommended ICL’s Executive Director Leadership Program. “I learned what I needed to do as an Executive Director, and I learned that running an organization is like running a business,” says Cynthia. She followed the advice she got at ICL, and “because of that, Gulf Restoration Network is pretty effective.” Indeed, under her tenure, the organization has grown from 2 people to 14. She has relied on ICL not only for her own professional development, but she also sends her staff to ICL’s other leadership development programs.
Cynthia points out that in order for environmental organizations to be effective, their leaders must be “very focused on the health of the organization itself, even if that means sometimes sacrificing my time for the issue work that is the love of my life. I understand that that is my role. ICL taught me that.”
Kate Fritz and Kirk Mantay, South River Federation
When Kate Fritz was hired to lead the South River Federation in Maryland, one of her first moves – at the urging of her board – was to enroll in ICL’s Executive Leadership Program. The program combined two multi-day training retreats with a lot of remote learning, coaching, and peer networking.
“It was immediately relevant,” she says. “I learned that being a good leader is lot broader than being able to do your job well. You need to build your own leadership model based on who you are.”
Kirk Mantay is the organization’s Director of Watershed Restoration, the longest-serving employee, and a self-described “science nerd,” adding, “I’ve taken and taught most science classes.” But he’d never received training in leadership development.
“I needed Kate to be successful,” he says – and increasingly, she was. As he observed the growth and change in her leadership skills, he decided to sign up for ICL’s Leading from Within, another long-term, intensive program.
With two alumni of these complementary programs leading the same organization, the culture began to shift. “We’re more introspective,” says Fritz. “Our work is less transactional and more strategic.” Mantay adds, with a laugh, “I use the word intentional a lot, which is new. Before taking action, I do a real quick scan. What might the results be? I’m less likely to blindly fire off emails.”
According to Fritz, “The other staff members see our personal work, the way we connect on work-life balance and managing ourselves, and they’re more interested in their own personal development. We’re seeing the changing culture reflected back to us. One person started brought flowers to the office to set the tone for an upcoming stretch of hard work.”
“We used to hire for skills,” she adds. “We still do, but now we also hire for personality, for curiosity. We want people who are intellectually curious.”
This culture shift has rippled out beyond the organization and into the wider community. In 2016, South River Federation was voted Best Nonprofit in Annapolis by the readers of a local magazine. “We’re seen as thoughtful, strategic, systems thinkers,” says Mantay. “After 15 years, the broader nonprofit community – the hospital, social service agencies, funders – have started reaching out to us. Donors are asking questions like, ‘How might you work with the hospital?’ That’s new, and it’s exciting.”
Reflecting on the ways that ICL has changed his work and his perspective, he adds, “All these changes came from left field, and I am so grateful. This new way of thinking, this new culture, are like tiny, daily investments that have immense payouts all the time.”
Mehrdad Azemun, Chicago Recycling Coalition
Mehrdad Azemun encountered ICL in the first week of his professional life in the early 1990s as an organizer for National Wildlife Federation’s campus program, ‘”Campus Ecology.”
“I hold ICL responsible for a lot of my growth as a leader,” says Mehrdad. “The skills I’ve come away with have paid direct dividends inside the environmental movement, and since then paid dividends in the immigrant rights movement.”
Then, as a young executive director of the small grassroots organization, the Chicago Recycling Coalition, Mehrdad had passion for his work but needed to learn about how to run an organization. “I was absolutely a spring chicken,” says Mehrdad. “In the ICL Executive Director Leadership Program, I learned the hard skills that helped keep the organization effective, as well as the importance of self care.”
The ICL staff modeled a collaborative style that stayed with Mehrdad, and he has continued to use that style in organizing and developing other leaders. The way the program was designed with an initial training, coaching, action planning, and peer support enabled him to apply what he was learning directly in his organization.
Today, as National Campaigns Director at People’s Action, Mehrdad sees young leaders in the same position he was in – many of them deeply frustrated and ready to walk away. “It was a reflection of myself when I was younger, only the difference was someone had invested in me,” says Mehrdad. “And, that organization was ICL.”
“In the book about the civil rights movement called I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, there is a chapter named ‘Slow and Respectful Work’ about what it takes to really build trust and build a leader. That is how I think of ICL’s work. None of this is fast, none can be taken for granted. It is thoughtful, deliberative work.”
“There is a reason I can’t point to one campaign or piece of legislation that ICL has affected,” Mehrdad adds. “It is actually many pieces of legislation and many beautiful, ecologically important places that ICL has helped preserve indirectly. These things happen because ICL has done that thoughtful, slow, deliberative work with so many leaders and so many organizations.”
Tonya Graham, Geos Institute
Tonya Graham, Executive Director of Geos Institue in Ashland, OR, is an energetic and committed leader in a field that is trying to solve the world’s most immense and intractable environmental dilemma – global climate change. At the Geos Institute, Tonya has developed an innovative way to bring the issue home: helping local communities prepare for climate change.
The Geos Institute provides research and advocacy on climate change, and works to protect the temperate rainforests that are a key part of our planet’s ability to sequester carbon.
“I came into contact with ICL when I was a brand new Executive Director,” recalls Tonya.
She was recognized for her raw talent for development, after starting her career as a volunteer hanging posters around town. Then, she became an Executive Director, with responsibilities that include fundraising, but also managing personnel, strategic planning, financial management, board relations.
“It was an incredible variety of tasks that I didn’t understand,” recalls Tonya. Leadership training with ICL helped Tonya realize that organizations go through natural life cycles, and there are different tools to address the challenges at each stage.
“It gave me concrete information and knowledge about the various aspects of being an executive director,” says Tonya. “If I had to stumble through that on my own, I would probably not be an Executive Director today or even have stayed in the conservation field.”
Now, Tonya feels at ease in her role as she expands programs and works directly with communities on climate change issues. She has eight ClimateWise® projects finished or underway, working on the tough issues of adjusting to a changing climate – managing water for fish, communities and farmers, adapting to new flood cycles, and reducing greenhouse gas pollution. At the same time, The Geos Institute is working on managing forests to sequester more carbon, especially in temperate rainforests.
“The experience with ICL made me understand that all the struggles I was having as a new ED were the struggles that everybody goes through. And, now I have a way forward.”
Kim Leval, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
According to Kim Leval, Executive Director of Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). “You have to be persistent, you have to be tenacious, and you can never stop.” She has seen first-hand how building relationships over the long-term can lead to major wins for the environment.
Previously, at the Center for Rural Affairs, Kim participated in a meeting convened by ICL to bring together a national group of crop, soil and agronomy scientists to meet with the sustainable agriculture community. The scientific associations had faced growing influence from corporate perspectives, with strong actors such as Monsanto and Cargill.
“By bringing the scientists together with the sustainable agriculture community, ICL created and strengthened an important democratic counter-balance to the voice of corporations,” says Kim. The dialogue sparked a whole new line of research and inquiry. “Ten years ago, most USDA research was focused on what kind of pesticide killed what kind of bug,” recalls Kim. “By bringing organic farmers into the dialogue and seeking alternatives, it made a big difference. Now, there is a national organic research program at USDA.”
Fast forward to Kim’s work today, and she is continuing her advocacy for alternatives to pesticides in the top leadership role at NCAP. Attending ICL’s Executive Director Leadership program was her board’s idea to ensure a smooth transition after the retirement of a 24-year long leader. Being able to reach out to other directors in the network, ask for advice, and gain insights from the ongoing coaching were invaluable to her in her first year at the helm. That year happened to be when the economic crisis hit in 2009. Her ICL coach helped her understand that the board would be looking to her for leadership. “ICL’s approach helped me strengthen my confidence and remember to trust my best instincts,” said Kim.
“ICL makes leaders more effective. That translates into more change for the environment.”