Plastic pollution and climate change are intertwined global phenomenons, and our capacity to respond to them depends on global as well as localised action, experience and resources. Individual action, though critical, will be insufficient to largely affect the systemic changes required to reduce plastic pollution and achieve a 1.5°C pathway. The most complex adaptive challenge of our times, climate change can only be tackled collectively and – with over 5 million Australians volunteering in community organisations every year and 537 Councils spending at least $5.5 billion dollars on environmental protection, collaboration between these two sectors is a no-brainer.
Three years ago, Ale Torres, Sustainability Engagement Officer at Waverley Council, and AJ Linke, Founder and CEO of Seaside Scavenge along with a suite of local organisations embarked on a journey to discover if local governments and community groups are naturally wired to effectively collaborate to reduce the plastic waste that is threatening our oceans and contributing to 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Collaboration: Easier said than done
When stripped back to basics, what’s not to like about ‘working together to achieve a common goal’?
Unfortunately, collaboration has become a buzz word of our era. We love talking about it, we restructure entire organisations and programs around it and grant funding also mandates for it. The thing is, sustained collaboration isn’t easy so, really, there’s no surprise that in many instances we get it wrong.
In our combined 17 years of working with local government, community and non-for-profits, we have seen and been part of countless collaborative initiatives that have gone pear-shaped. In fact, at one-point we swore our respective organisations would ‘never, ever work with each other again!’
Fast-forward three years and the program that started as a flop is now a thriving ecosystem of nine highly engaged organisations effectively working towards a common agenda.
Waverley Council is a seaside municipality on the east coast of Australia – famed for its beaches (heard of Bondi?) and its well-educated and multicultural community with strong links to the local environment.
Triggered by a desire to help the community give single-use plastics the flick and keep our beaches clean, 25 people representing 10 community organisations and the local Council, found themselves in a room trying to reimagine the way of working together.
Prior to our Collaborating for Impact (C4I) Program, ‘collaboration’ between environmental community groups and Council was mainly through ad-hoc support and funding. Efforts were uncoordinated, co-design was non-existent and community engagement levels were lower than ideal. There were clashes, misunderstandings, low trust levels, and, in many cases, relationships were eroded or almost non-existent.
Efforts were uncoordinated, co-design was non-existent and community engagement levels were lower than ideal.
Up to this point, our collaborative efforts had never been about co-design, let alone about building a strong ecosystem of relationships. There we were, all of us, trying to make planet-friendly behaviours second nature to the Waverley community without even truly knowing each other.
It is fair to say, frustration about each other’s actions, or perceived lack thereof, was high.
How many times have you been in a room ready to collaborate just to find out it’s all about a previously set agenda your organisation had no part in developing? How many times have you taken part in a ‘collaborative’ initiative without first taking the time to properly know each other’s capabilities, weaknesses and strengths?
True collaboration requires a shift in the way we think and work. So how did we go about building a relationship ecosystem?
Together, we learnt about the Collective Impact framework , successfully used in social development contexts, and agreed on adapting its five key conditions as the base for our new collaborative realm.
With the help of a trained Collective Impact facilitator, we learnt about each other; we revisited the history of working together and had difficult conversations. Most importantly, we invested time and effort developing a deeper understanding of each organisation, our weaknesses, strengths and capabilities. This led to trusted and meaningful relationships within the group as power was clearly shared.
That alone took up the first four sessions. It was an exercise in self-reflection, listening and letting go and a much-needed step into a journey of co-design and collaboration.
It wasn’t easy. Some people struggled with the idea of spending time building relationships with no tangible deliverable, which is often a focus of how many organisations operate. We’d become so centred on achieving goals and delivering programs that we forget to invest time and effort in creating authentic connections that will sustain the long-term success of what we do. All of this is reinforced by the existing funding economy which tends to encourage competition and the delivery of short-term activities rather than collective impact with long-term sustainability and vision.
In our first planning session we identified that despite this being a collaborative project, we needed a backbone to lead as organiser and administer the program. In C4I, this role fell to Council and primarily Ale. She became the backbone of the program, which was pivotal to coordinate the communications, meetings and co-design between partners.
#3 Patience & flexibility
You’ll most probably have to fight the urge to want to jump into action! It takes time to get to know one another’s objectives and discover the overlap.
It takes time to get to know one another’s objectives and discover the overlap.
#4 Acceptance and Openness
True collaboration programs won’t always go the way you envisioned. People will bring ideas that might seem left of field or far removed from your organisation’s comfortable zone, but being open to listen, accept, explore and trial ideas is crucial. You never know where they’ll lead!
#5 Keep it fresh!
Besides co-designing and co-implementing initiatives, learning from each other, from our actions and from experts has been enormously valuable for both Council and community groups. Accessing skills training, our collaborative debriefs, regular grant updates and the chance to meet face-face with local organisations have kept the program exciting and fresh, as there is frequently a new way to engage with the program which has been crucial for its longevity.
Learning from each other, from our actions and from experts has been enormously valuable for both Council and community groups.
Our Collective Results
After three years of giving this collaboration model a go, an independent evaluator has given our C4I partnership the big thumbs up. Together we have:
- Built our capacity to achieve common objectives with 96% of partners reporting increased capacity to work together and 91% developing additional skills.
- Increased community engagement in environmental education activities by 343%
- Reduced duplication of effort and per head investment by 3%
- Engaged over 4,000 residents, with 70% of participants being new to our activities
- Generated high (91%) levels of trust between partners, resulting in increased transparency, accountability and willingness to work together.
- With an investment of just over $15,000/year, we have leveraged volunteer value in-kind of over $50,000 into educational activities.
- Built strong and sustainable relationships with a 92% retention of partners in the program.
For all partners this Collaboration approach has proven an effective and ultimately efficient way to work towards achieving common sustainability objectives as well as our own organisational goals. But perhaps more importantly, it has built a sense of connectedness, created social capital and renewed partners’ optimism and understanding of the value of collective action; essential to fostering healthy communities and social resilience.
This optimism and success have also boosted the ambition of the network to expand focus onto other areas, including climate change. Together we are now exploring interconnected environmental issues at the regional scale with neighbouring Councils.
Starting slowly, the last 6 months have seen online workshops with 45 community groups and 3 Councils exploring collaboration in order to realise shared visions and opportunities for climate change. These small steps are building momentum towards a Collaboration Summit next year to support collective community action.
One thing we would do differently? Measure social capital! Our monitoring did not measure items such as social capital or community resilience, as such indicators are qualitative, complex and still emerging. Establishing sound metrics for demonstrating the intrinsic value of this program would help it to be better understood and valued within Council and help us set goals when moving onto to new challenges like climate change.
Last words of wisdom
As we’ve learnt through C4I, true collaboration is not about one group coming to another with a predefined plan or approach. On the contrary, it’s about figuring things out together within collective strengths, weaknesses and capabilities. It’s about coming to the table with an open mind and approach where no conversation or idea is set apart from a discussion. It’s about diving deep into knowing each other’s programs and collectively exploring whether there’s an overlap that can be pursued. Sometimes there simply isn’t one, and that’s ok.
It’s about coming to the table with an open mind and approach where no conversation or idea is set apart from a discussion. It’s about diving deep into knowing each other’s programs and collectively exploring whether there’s an overlap that can be pursued.
Our last words of wisdom? If you’re embarking on a collaborative endeavour, we can’t recommend enough starting at ground zero. Oh, and remember patience and empathy are key. True collaboration takes time but will reap endless value for years to come if done truly collectively.
Thanks to all C4I partners for their amazing work in the collaborative enviro space: Plastic Free Bronte, Seaside Scavenge, Waverley Council, Protect Our 1, Transition Bondi, Sydney Eastern Suburbs Boomerang Bags, Happy Fish Bondi, Responsible Runners, Wilderness Society