Taking the Leap with Partners for Environmental Justice
How does a small volunteer-run organization transition into a fully-fledged nonprofit? Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ) (Raleigh, NC) recently committed to taking this leap, leaning on River Network for support and collaboration. After over a year of work together, addressing both programmatic and organizational development support, we’re reflecting on what makes investments like these successful and sustainable.
In the fall of 2020, Partners for Environmental Justice applied for a River Network re-grant program: they were looking for support in launching the Raleigh Watershed Learning Network (now the Walnut Creek Watershed Learning Network) through River Network’s Equitable Climate Resilience funding from the Kresge Foundation and Spring Point Partners. During the six months we worked together, PEJ launched a successful Learning Network as well as an environmental Youth Academy; both programs were designed to equip emerging leaders with the skills and knowledge to be effective advocates for their communities and the local environment. During this time, River Network provided technical assistance and a small grant to support the development of both programs. This included monthly check-in calls, program recommendations, connecting PEJ with other relevant members of our network, and assisting with basics like program flyers and curriculum ideas.
With these two successful pilot programs completed in early 2021, PEJ was transitioning from a volunteer-run organization without any in-house programs, to a nonprofit with paid staff and program management needs. Often referred to as “The Leap,” this stage of nonprofit growth can be tenuous: many small organizations get caught in this stage for years while they are figuring out staff and financial management, being tested with human resource concerns for the first time, and constantly identifying additional capacity needs. As we concluded our program support contract with PEJ, River Network took note of this transition and offered to continue our support: we were ecstatic when PEJ decided to invest in a consultant and reached out to us for a proposal. After preparing a budget-friendly scope of work for the Board of Directors, we dove into work during the spring of 2021. Now, nearly a year later, River Network is concluding our work with PEJ and reflecting on what we’ve accomplished together.
As with most of our consulting contracts, we began our work with PEJ by getting to know the organization and everyone involved: we conducted interviews with every single Board member to identify PEJ’s strengths, accomplishments, and history; conversely, these interviews also revealed Board members’ concerns and needs, and identified areas for growth. With this information in place, we worked together to map out goals to accomplish during our time together. The vulnerability and honesty from members of the Board of Directors during this first phase of work set the stage for success throughout the rest of the contract. On the agenda for the next six months: rewriting PEJ’s by-laws, fundraising and grant management, board development and recruitment, communications support, and organizational workplanning. With PEJ being a small organization with limited capacity, we had a blunt conversation about the amount of work ahead of us and collectively agreed we were committed to seeing this work through.
We kicked things off formally in August of 2021 with an in-person, half-day retreat in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center (you read that right – in-person!). In just four hours, we set the tone for more successful board meetings, identified internal communications procedures and preferences, and worked through having difficult conversations to resolve conflict. PEJ Board members took turns filling leadership roles during the retreat, actively practicing meeting management and sharing responsibilities. Together, the group identified a number of things they felt strongly about implementing going forward: as the consultant, I listened and recorded, mediated, and posed questions while the Board took the lead in making decisions about their future.
Between August and December, we broke into small teams to accomplish a variety of tasks: the main goal was to lay the groundwork for new Board members, staff members, and programs within PEJ. The organization successfully re-wrote and approved a new set of by-laws that reflect their current circumstances, produced a full set of position descriptions for their Board leadership, and created an employee onboarding process. The Board treasurer worked diligently on financial procedures and made recommendations to hire an accountant, a critical component to guarantee any organization’s financial health. At current, we are jointly working on a new board member orientation process and a six-month workplan. While River Network sat in on monthly board meetings and facilitated a number of trainings to get these projects started, it was really the willingness of Board members to participate and take ownership over these critical foundations that drove progress.
As we begin the new year and reflect on our time together, River Network recognizes that similarly to many of the organizations we consult with, PEJ will likely need follow-up support to make sure their newly laid foundation is sustainable and effective. Ongoing check-ins and mentoring can help solidify changes and form new habits within growing organizations; while the formal work is over, we’ll be staying in touch and offering a dedicated amount of ongoing support post-contract; and if they’ll have us, returning to help facilitate a summer 2022 board retreat!
While completing the actual “work” during a contract like the one with PEJ is satisfying, the individual relationships River Network staff build with each Board member, volunteer, or staff member is what really drives the success of our capacity-building work, and reiterates the importance of keeping our network connected.
A member of PEJ’s Board of Directors offered this final thought on our time together: “Going from a loose-knit group of nature-lovers to a grant-supported community activist, advocacy and educational program required a huge leap in organizational structural development and capacity increase. And it needed to be done in one year. River Network provided us with the tools, info, and hands on guidance to move forward.”
If your organization is interested in capacity-building support of any kind, please reach out to our team for support.