Megan shares lessons from The Clinton Global Initiative, New York City, 2010 in hopes to inspire those in WNC undertaking big community building projects. This article is a good read for organizations and public agencies open to creative fundraising, as well as for businesses finding market-based solutions for sustainability.
On September 22, 2010, I was extremely lucky (and very humbled!) to receive a complimentary day pass to an exclusive and influential event in Manhattan: The Clinton Global Initiative. I found myself in the same room with some of the most famous and elite politicians, actors and corporate leaders making big differences in the world.
From the first moment of the opening session, when CGI Founding Chairman and, of course, 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton walked on stage, my mind teemed with possibilities and opportunities. How could I impart this once-in-a-lifetime experience as well as the knowledge, energies and connections gained at this event to my home in the mountains of North Carolina? How can this experience help M R et cetera clients?
Clinton initiated CGI because he was tired of sitting in meetings and hearing great ideas but little action. The whole point of CGI is to facilitate action. Corporate sponsors partner with non-profit and governmental organizations to pull off community-building projects that address some of the world's most pressing issues – including energy efficiency, land conservation and sustainable agriculture. I especially enjoyed hearing actor Jim Carrey talk about his Better U Foundation's project to improve the techniques for growing rice in Africa – quadrupling the yield while lowering water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite this global scope, several of the commitments do involve North Carolina. Here's a few NC projects introduced at CGI this year. Participants commit to bring back big results to CGI in one year.
I have no doubt that land conservation, sustainable agriculture and local foods initiatives in Western North Carolina could be future CGI commitments. See this explanation of how to become a CGI member and apply for a commitment.
Don't have $20,000 to become a member? Does the membership process feel a little daunting? Well, we can still implement some of the lessons learned at CGI in our community – starting now.
- Expanding scope and self-sufficiency through partnerships;
- Undertaking community projects through existing public structures;
- Taking risks, tapping into the potential of all financial levels, and changing the model of development;
- Recognizing modern-day motivations in advocacy.
Expanding scope and self-sufficiency through partnerships
Thomas Friedman, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The New York Times, said during the Plenary Session "Strengthening Market-Based Solutions" that we are in the midst of a transition when government no longer has the financial capacity to support community-building projects. Now attention is turning to the private sector to fund these projects and trust non-profit and governmental organizations to implement them. Through these partnerships, community projects can grow to the scale required to meet modern day needs, and the initiatives can become self-sufficient to exist for the long-term.
Those of us who have facilitated partnerships and coalitions know that these relationships do not form overnight, and not without hard work and cooperation. But the needs and opportunities in front of us are so large, we have no choice but to form them. Jeffrey Swartz, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Timberland Company, said bluntly during the "Market-Based Solutions for Protecting the Environment" session: These partnerships require a subordination of ego. "The government has to sit at the table and actually un-puff, the private sector has to sit at the table and uncross its arms, and activists have to sit at the table and stop spitting," Swartz said.
In my personal experience, these hard-fought partnerships are very rewarding when all is said and done. Each partner brings valuable viewpoints, skill levels and experiences to the table. In understanding each others' perspectives, we all become better at what we do. Non-profits can further their goals at a quick pace if they tap into existing public structures and connections within the community. Often the framework is already in place to pull off tremendous projects. The missing piece is the funding, which the private sector can provide, as long as the corporate values are in line with the non-profit’s.
As we address social and environmental issues on a deep level, corporations that are funding these initiatives will also be changing their business practices to reflect their philanthropic missions. Swartz spoke to the difference between corporations "being and doing." Examples of "doing" are eliminating packaging and limiting transportation, both decreasing the impact on the Earth as well as increasing the bottom line. All very positive actions. But a step further is "being," when the entire corporate mission is devoted to bettering communities and the ecosystems in which we live – which often involves partnering with so-called "competitors" to improve industry standards.
"The only way we can build sustainable matrix into our business is by changing the way our industry operates," Swartz said. "It's beyond frustrating, it's darn near impossible, and we're hard at work." And the consumers are behind him.
Undertaking community projects through existing public structures
One example of a valuable public structure that can partner in community building activities is the Extension Agent model, typically funded through the land grant universities and local counties. Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, underscored the importance of Extension Agents in the session "Building Partnerships to Empower the World’s Smallholder Farmers." He pointed out that without the Extension Agent model that exists in the United States, agricultural projects overseas often fall short. Farmers may not trust a non-profit organization, a corporation or the government, but they will trust their neighbors. If they see their neighbors prospering, farmers are likely to adopt that practice, Vilsack said.
With my experience with WNC AgOptions, I could not agree more about the importance of Extension Agents, and the power of non-profits partnering with these local community contacts. Agents understand the local culture, the issues, the history and the dialect (which changes county-by-county in Western North Carolina). Their hearts are big, they commit large amounts of time, and they are eager to help the people in their communities.
Agents often grew up in the local area, left home to attend college, and then returned after graduation and a few years of work experience to impart knowledge and benefit communities. Farmers that the Agents assist in turn provide examples for other neighbors, who are smartly "must-see-it-to-believe-it" type folks.
As we form these new partnerships and funding is restructured, I see tremendous value in holding closely to the Extension Agent model, and increasing opportunities for non-profits to work with the Agents. With the funding, efficiency and momentum of the business sector; the structure, knowledge and local connections of governmental and university entities; and the vision, passion and eagerness of non-profit organizations, projects can move forward with speed to address the enormity of issues of this millennium.
Taking risks, tapping into the potential of all financial levels, and changing the model of development
In the Plenary Session, "Strengthening Market-Based Solutions," Leila Janah, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Samasource, spoke to the importance of comfort with failure. Her company has been quite successful at expanding jobs to the far corners of the world. She pointed out that in venture capitalism only 20 percent of investments are typically big successes, and 40 percent are failures – and that is okay! "We need to get that comfortable with failure in the Aid space and in the social impact sector," Janah said.
I wish that we could rename failure to "lessons learned." Without stumbles, we could never learn how to do the task better the next time. In my work, I've realized the farmers who are the most successful are the ones who 1) are not afraid to try something new, and 2) will pull out and accept defeat when the idea is not working, and then try another avenue.
Which brings up another one of Janah's points – the importance of recognizing the abilities of those in poor, often rural communities. She spoke about "the tremendous untapped potential of the four billion people who live at the bottom of the economic pyramid," and how corporate sponsors and non-profit leaders should spend time living among their customers to understand their needs and concerns. "If you are extensively serving the poor, how can you serve them if you're not living among them and understanding what their challenges are?"
This idea was repeated at the "Market-Based Solutions for Protecting the Environment" session. M. Sanjayan, Lead Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, said the most effective way to implement conservation projects is to ask the locals about their needs. If they say "feeding cattle," then they will likely be supportive of protecting the water source of those cattle, including the forests that contain the headwater streams.
I've realized from my experience with WNC AgOptions that the most practical and creative ideas derive from those who are working the land day in and day out. One of the best aspects of WNC AgOptions is that farmers tell the funders what needs to be done rather than vice versa. Through the grant program, we put the money in the hands of the wise ones – the ones with the multi-generational knowledge of farming.
Those assisting with global community projects are finally realizing the importance of small-scale farming. President Clinton spoke about changing the model of development assistance during the session "Harnessing Human Potential." "It's not a bad thing to make a living farming," Clinton said, and "there are a few simple cost-effective things that can be done that would dramatically increase agricultural income and the stability of families." I whole-heartedly agree. That is the foundation of WNC AgOptions, and I hope our recipients will someday impart lessons to agricultural leaders throughout the world.
Recognizing modern-day motivations in advocacy
Consumers are tired of "inconvenient truths;" they want convenient truths, Swartz (of Timberland Company) said during "Market-Based Solutions for Protecting the Environment." If you harp on the wastefulness of modern lifestyles, "you get a tremendous blast back: do not talk to me about inconvenient truths…. I'm bombarded by the bombastic every minute of my day, being told that the world is coming to an end and it's my fault, with no clue about what I'm supposed to do about it except feel bad. If you have a proposition that is: a product that works with a value that's real and aesthetic that's compelling — and it's built and delivered in a responsible fashion — I'll give you a grudging man nod."
Swartz said that if you offer a product that benefits the community, "if you line up 100 consumers, you'd get 100 yeses, or the two nos didn't understand the question." It's easy for them to buy, say, a boot produced with the environment in mind, or a vitamin drink from which a portion of profits go to water conservation efforts.
Similarly, Sanjayan of The Nature Conservancy talked about how most modern people are motivated by seven days in the future, not seven generations. So environmental messages should concentrate on the "now:" "Save this stuff because it's important to your well-being right now."
"Scalability and self sustainability — those two things are going to come about if we can figure out how to…take market forces and incorporate that into what we're trying to do in the environmental movement," Sanjayan said. One of those market forces is abundance. Modern consumers are motivated by "more." And with proper design, they can have "more" and still protect the Earth's resources. (For some great examples of these designs, refer to William McDonough.) Do you want a 90-minute hot shower? That's fine, if that water is collected from the roof and heated in a solar tank (and no one else is waiting in line for a shower).
After ten years of sometimes struggling with myself and loved ones to change consumer habits and limit unnecessary resource use, I understand the need to tap into modern day values such as efficiency, abundance and luxury to make positive change. There's no reason why the "green movement" needs to be separate from these three values.
However, let's not discount those of us who are not enticed by consumerism, but choose to live a disciplined life, committed to values of sacrifice and simplicity, whether for economic or ecological reasons. Sacrifice for the collective good can be quite fulfilling, and in the end we realize we're not sacrificing anything but gaining everything. Only when we relearn our ways so that we are not just consumers but creators, invested in our communities and contributing our talents, do we truly step into abundance.
If we all pick something we love, whether that be growing our own food or riding our bikes to work, and go for it, we just might experience the happiness those activities bring to our lives. We just might be moved to tears, as was Wal-Mart's Senior Vice President of Marketing, during the close of the "Market-Based Solutions" session. "If it's really important to all of us, we've all got to do something different," he said. His company is moving toward providing transparency and information about the ecological and social impacts of their products. If Wal-Mart is doing something, then it's time for all of us to step up to the plate and do "something."
Sometimes tackling the small stuff is just easier – like how many bags brought home from Ingles – then the big stuff, like the amount of fuel used in our agricultural system. Both extremes should be tackled, and the micro is just as important as the macro. The actions of individuals are equally important as the business practices of corporations. In tandem, and only in tandem, will we realize the visions for the new Millennium.