Guest article by Mike Morrice, Executive Director, Sustainability CoLab, Chad Park, Executive Director, The Natural Step and Elizabeth Sheehan, President, Climate Smart Business.
At the turn of the last century one of America’s great innovators, Henry Ford, commented, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” And today, a hundred years later, his words still ring true, embodying the spirit of collaboration that the Foundation proposed to us last fall.
Going back to early 2014, The Natural Step, Climate Smart and Sustainability CoLab – each supported by the McConnell Foundation – was working in different areas of the country on different solutions, but with a significant commonality: each were scaling innovations that engaged business in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
At the time, each was aware of one another, but none had prioritized collaborating. This, combined with the scarcity of resources, provided the potential for future competition between the three.
This is where a well-timed bit of leadership came in: the Foundation proposed a small collaborative grant to the three organizations. The only caveat? The money must be used on a shared priority.
Now, rather than being protective of the similarities between our solutions, as leaders of each organization we could be opportunistic about them. We could seek out shared gains in our work, should we commit some time to build up our shared understanding.
And it hasn’t always been smooth. Coming together is the easy part ; the harder part is working through distinct approaches, business models and perspectives together. Challenges ranged from seemingly simple things like how often we meet, who a shared staff person should report to, to more complex issues like how we coordinate our efforts so as not to compete. We’ve learned that communication is key: time up front spent on clarifying roles, decision-making and process is worth it.
We created a culture of openness and transparency in our collaboration by surfacing the tensions between us as we worked through them. And we made the time to learn about each of our programs, how each organization functions, where our plans complemented one another.
It’s taken time and patience but now we’ve built up readiness for something bigger altogether.
When this collaboration began, none of the partner organizations expected the political landscape to shift as dramatically as it has in the past year. In Ontario for example, who would’ve predicted that every major political party would be in support of a carbon price by early 2016? Meanwhile, the Government of Canada states it is committed to building a credible plan to GHGs by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
All of this better positions our collaborative. Rather than each organization remaining in a silo, after 18 months of working together, we’re ready to engage with the federal government as a group. We recognized the gaps in our geographic scope, and so we reached out to Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST) to join our partnership.
All four organizations are now working together to engage with the federal government – bringing our shared assets to them, making it easier for them to understand how to make the most of proven models already in place across the country, and bringing our paradigm of abundance to this new conversation.
And of course, so much of the story is still to be written. But we do see this small part in our story as indicative of what can happen when a funder takes a step back, perhaps understanding the ecosystem from a different and wider perspective than even their own grantees, and leaves room for organizations like ours to learn from the process – trusting that the end result will be desirable because of what flows when an abundance paradigm replaces one of scarcity.
In our case, we expect the best is yet to come.