By Partnership Chair Brad Daniel
“You’re going to need a bigger boat,” an iconic line from the classic movie Jaws, was spoken by the Police Chief after seeing the size of the great white shark they were hunting. More recently, the importance of building a bigger boat has emerged as a common theme for making a greater impact in the environmental education community as well as others. But why is this important and, if it is, how can we actually do it?
It has long been noted that organizations and institutions sometimes become more internally focused over time as a function of organizational growth. This sometimes leads to mission drift or a shift in direction that is more tangential to the original mission. Greater internal focus on the individual organization and its success can also breed two other consequences often unnoticed – territoriality and fragmentation. Territoriality can be seen in a reluctance or even resistance to connect with other likeminded groups, organizations, or institutions. Fragmentation involves smaller organizations working independently in their own silos.
The environmental community consists of many people and organizations doing great work individually, yet it has sometimes been criticized for being too fragmented, a quality that impedes speaking with a louder, more unified voice about environmental issues and concerns. It has also been criticized, somewhat ironically, for organizations and institutions working in silos and resisting working together to make a larger impact. There are many reasons for this including fear of loss of individual organizational identity, concern over additional time commitments and, in the case of businesses, losing market share due to sharing ideas that lead to a replication of their services. If organizations can move beyond these concerns, the ability to have a greater impact increases substantially. How can this be accomplished? How can organizations maintain identity while connecting to other likeminded entities? A primary way is through partnering.
The first step in developing partnerships is to identify likeminded organizations or institutions and bring them together. Sometimes magic happens when you get people from different organizations together around the same table. Ideas are generated, trust and understanding are enhanced, fears and concerns are diminished, and the work moves forward in creative, powerful ways. Partnering is a strategic way to build a bigger boat without losing the identity of the individual organizations.
Over the last six years, the Environmental Educators North Carolina (EENC), have been working to bring people and organizations together from across the state. It has hosted two summits in which various North Carolina environmental organizations came together to network and generate ideas for collaboration. These initiatives have resulted in a joint event planning calendar on the state EE website, a three-day mini conference cosponsored by the North Carolina Association of Environmental Education Centers (NAAEEC) and EENC, and collective opportunities to support each organization’s good work. EENC has been working at local, state, regional (primarily through the Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance - SEEA), and national levels (through the North American Association for Environmental Education - NAAEE) to strengthen relationships and build interconnections among people and organizations. Current projects include developing a database of EE-related faculty and programs at NC colleges and universities and organizing gatherings for the faculty to come together, network, and discuss collaborative initiatives.
Environmental Education is a field that values a systemic ecological perspective. Consequently, EE would rarely view an ecological community solely in terms of its individual components because it understands and appreciates the interconnections between abiotic and biotic factors, producers, consumers and decomposers, food chains and food webs, habitats and microclimates. How ironic would it be if the work of EE took place only in individual silos? There are many wonderful organizations out there doing great work at multiple levels of scale and yet the individual voices may never have the same impact as our collective voice. Partnering creates an ecological web of practitioners and organizations, a web that is stronger as a result of its many members.
Like the shark in Jaws, some of the environmental challenges we face appear quite large, even daunting. We need a bigger boat to face these challenges, to build capacity, to create change, and to magnify impact. In order to move the work forward, all organizations concerned with protecting and conserving the environment need to collaborate and communicate, not simply coexist. Doing so will help the environmental community speak with a more unified and collective voice… and will help build a bigger boat.