Sustainability is a buzz-word of our times, and an important consideration for environmental projects. A few or even just one enthusiastic individual can often be the catalyst for a successful group, but if that individual or handful of active participants move on or lose interest, the group can fall apart. If you are the enthusiastic individual who started the whole thing, it can be difficult to let go. It’s your baby.
But babies do have to grow up and leave home. If you don’t devolve responsibility the whole thing may collapse if you have a change in circumstances or have to move away. Think about devolution as part of the natural development of the group. Empowering as many people as possible to feel that they are a stakeholder in the group and its activities, and that they have a role in the decision-making process, will ensure their continued interest and enthusiasm. For this to happen, you must always be open to new ideas, however unrealistic or unfamiliar they seem. Consensus makes for lengthy meetings, but for long life too.
The most successful and sustainable projects are likely to be with people who ‘own’ their project. For instance, a garden club on a housing estate or a school nature area looked after by pupils, staff and parents in a joint activity. People can feel quite territorial about their local parks and other open spaces, and become committed once they are given the opportunity to get involved. ‘Friends of ……..’ groups are an ideal way to promote local involvement and encourage the development of good conservation practice on our largest areas of green in the city. They also encourage the development of partnerships between the various stakeholders in the park.
A local conservation group which roves around a specific area can survive if well supported by the local authority or some other large landowner which provides the sites for work and pays for it. Such partnerships between local authorities and conservation groups makes the local authority into a stakeholder and so increases sustainability.
From the beginning it is important that responsibilities are spread as widely as possible to involve as many individuals as possible. Good leadership means trusting others to do the jobs they have taken on. By devolving responsibility no-one should feel overburdened, there is a greater pool of energy, time and skills, and the group is more democratic.
Good training increases confidence and the ability to take on more sophisticated projects and more ambitious aims. This increases satisfaction and opens up new possibilities. The development of the group should have a parallel development of the individuals in it. Training essentials include health and safety, and leadership. TCV run an extensive training programme. Contact your local office for further information.
Where another stakeholder can provide basic funding this will help greatly in the longevity of the group. Creating stakeholders is a good way to add value to the existence of the group, and encourage investment in its long-term survival. A local authority can often gain good publicity for the area, achieve local environmental improvement targets, and fulfil obligations under Local Agenda 21 and Biodiversity Action Plans just by being a stakeholder in your group.
Local businesses can gain goodwill and publicity from supporting local environmental projects. They often have funds set aside to support local community action. Try and build up a good relationship with small and large businesses in the locality.
Management and work plans
Management plans for sites and work plans for volunteers will help ensure that the work is carried on, even if the membership of the group changes. Proper plans are essential to attract funders, or to meet national or local environmental targets which might be a channel of funding from local government or other agencies.
Help with management plans can be provided by TCV through the local project officer. The organisation REACH may be able to provide help from retired business managers with business plans, proposal writing and project management.
Structure and leadership
Some groups like to remain informal, and city populations can be very unstable. Recruiting new members and handing on the torch is important, and although formal structures are more difficult to set up, they are usually more stable in the long term. The development of leaders is an important factor in the success of groups. Training all the members who are willing to become leaders can help the group survive longer and achieve more.
Affiliation to a national organisation
Joining the larger network of a national body is one way to maintain a feeling of support through being in touch with other similar groups. Affiliation to a national body can enhance your public profile, and gives you credibility when dealing with funders, landowners and other organisations. The access to networking with other groups, information and training opportunities can have long-term benefits for the group and its local community.
Celebrations and events
Include some celebratory events into your annual calendar to help sustain the group. Having a party or gathering, or joining in another event as a group helps to create a feel- good factor away from the hard work. Taking part in a local carnival, organising a Tree Dressing event, or having an action day for a national campaign all help to celebrate and value the hard work you are doing. The publicity you gain will also help establish your group in the area.
Celebrating your local environment is a good way to encourage involvement from people who do not see themselves as ‘conservation volunteers’. In particular, art, sculpture and dance can be a powerful evocation of the environmental message to those who aren’t keen to get their hands dirty. Gain their interest, and before you know it they’re in there with the fork and shovel.
EAGER (Effective Action Glasgow for Environmental Renewal) was set up by the Scottish Conservation Projects Trust, with funding from the Urban Programme. The aims were:
- to do effective and quality practical conservation work on a full-time basis to improve Glasgow’s environment.
- to provide environmental training for young people.
- to improve employment prospects.
- to involve local communities.
The key principle of EAGER was that participation should be evident at all stages of a project, from consultation over ideas and proposals, through action on the ground, to the assumption of local responsibility for sites in the long term.
EAGER employed a team leader with four team members, a community development officer, an urban field officer with a landscape qualification and a project manager. The team received on the job training in tree planting, fencing, footpath construction, bricklaying, hand tool maintenance, safe use and maintenance of brushcutters, chainsaw certification and herbicide certification. Of the eight who gained work experience with the team, two have started their own landscape business, three have gone on to further education, one has been employed by the National Trust for Scotland and two have been employed elsewhere.
During the three years of EAGER, over 56 projects were completed, involving 3740 workdays. Local volunteers, mainly from schools, have been involved in most of the projects. Examples of projects are Craigton Cemetery and Selvieland Road Wildlife Area, both in Glasgow.
Experience showed that community involvement in, and appreciation of, environmental improvements were highest where work was done in conjunction with other local initiatives, particularly housing renovation. Community responsibility for sites is not always easy to achieve, and needs the input of training and support for local tenants and other groups to enable them to maintain and further develop the initiatives in their area.