Building Collaboratives Roundtable
Join Chelsea Silva, River Network’s Healthy Rivers Program Associate for a Meet Your Network Roundtable conversation with four individuals involved in building collaboratives to leverage federal funding for their rivers.
Nancy Steele (Friends of the Verde River), John Green (Gold Coast Resource Conservation District), Kate Fitzpatrick (Deschutes River Conservancy), and Amy Verbeten (Friends of the Teton River), speak with Chelsea about their successes, challenges, and lessons for others across the national network of water, justice, and river advocates in working collaboratively to access a variety of federal funding opportunities available for water and river projects across the US. Visit our webpage to learn more about each collaborative and explore complete case studies.
Jump to a specific section:
- 02:45 – What does successful collaboration look like?
- 11:28 – What are your biggest challenges in accessing federal and other types of funding?
- 21:56 – What’s one thing folks should know about making these collaboratives work? What’s one piece of advice for getting started?
Learn more about these four collaboratives, read the full case studies, and enjoy additional storytelling from the network in the April 2023 issue of River Voices.
00:03 Chelsea Silva
Alright, thank you so much for joining us today for River Network’s roundtable discussion on collaboratives and leveraging federal funding. My name is Chelsea Silva and I’m the Healthy Rivers Program Associate with River Network. I would like to go ahead and introduce our panel for today. We have representatives from four collaboratives across the Western United States who will be joining us. I’m just going to go ahead and ask Nancy to introduce yourself first. If you would like to please share your name, your title, the river that you work in, and, if you like, your mission statement.
00:50 Nancy Steele
Sure, thank you, Chelsea. Nancy Steele, I’m Executive Director of Friends of the Verde River. The Verde River is an Arizona River, and Friends of the Verde River works collaboratively for a healthy, flowing Verde River.
01:08 Chelsea Silva
Thank you, Nancy! John, would you like to introduce yourself?
01:14 John Green
Yeah, I’m John Green. I work for the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, which is a government agency in Sonoma County, California. We are a member of the Russian River Coho Water Resources Partnership, obviously working in the Russian River, and the goal of that particular collaborative is to ensure that there are sufficient dry season stream flows for recovery of endangered fish population specifically coho salmon.
01:42 Chelsea Silva
Thank you so much, John. And, Kate?
01:46 Kate Fitzpatrick
Hi, thanks, Chelsea! I’m Kate Fitzpatrick, I’m the Executive Director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, and the Deschutes River Basin is in Central Oregon, and the mission of the Deschutes River Conservancy is to restore streamflow and water quality to the Deschutes River Basin.
02:19 Amy Verbeten
I’m Amy Verbeten, I’m the Executive Director for Friends of the Teton River. We are a nonprofit operating out of Driggs, Idaho, in the Teton River watershed, which spans Idaho and a small portion of Wyoming. Our mission is to work together with our community for clean water, healthy streams, and a thriving wild fishery in the Teton River watershed.
02:50 Chelsea Silva
So the first question is, “In your experience, what does successful collaboration or a successful coalition look like?”
03:01 Nancy Steele
I can go first! So Friends of the Verde River started back in 2011 on a collaborative effort with the coalition that we call the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition (VWRC, “V-work”). That coalition’s made up of all the major landowners, which includes a lot of federal agencies and state agencies, plus regulators that are involved, and private property owners and organizations. VWRC’s been very successful at establishing a plan with an overall goal, objectives, and action items. We are on our third strategic plan, and so I would say, the successful collaborative includes people getting together on a regular basis, establishing the common goals, and understanding—sort of having that understanding of who’s going to do what, that’s really important. I think one thing that has made it very successful is that we’ve got federal partners who are pretty clear about what needs to be done, and that matches with what everyone in the rest of the group thinks needs to be done, and the federal partners and the state partners end up providing a lot of the funding to the work we do.
04:27 Nancy Steele
I think another key element of the coalition is that there’s a, sort of a backbone organization that is willing to take on the work of convening the group. In our case we [Friends of the Verde River] not only convene the group, but end up doing a lot of the field work also. I don’t think, having the backbone organization be the organization that does a lot of the work is absolutely necessary, but in our case that’s worked out really well. And, so: funding. I guess that that other element that I just mentioned – actually having the funding to do the work really helps. I’ve been in other collaboratives that have failed because there was so much competition, and everybody was worried about who was going to get the money to do the work. So, not sure how to help in that situation where the funding isn’t available, but in our case, I think it’s been a prerequisite and necessary.
05:26 Chelsea Silva
Wonderful. Thank you, Nancy. Would anybody like to add on to that, those elements?
05:35 Amy Verbeten
Sure, I’ll add a couple of things! Lots of agreement with Nancy’s statement, so I won’t repeat those. But, for us we participate in a number of collaboratives. We’re working primarily with private landowners and other non-governmental organizations, although we do work closely with local, cities, and county governments. Something that we found is that if we are to be a true collaborative, with a truly collaborative approach, that we go in with a clear establishment of the problems that we are trying to solve together, and we generate those together. But we don’t go in with a predetermined outcome, or a predetermined way of solving them. We have really found that that has been a key to establishing collaboration, as opposed to getting people to just be on board with an idea that someone else already has. So that’s been really important for us, and it’s allowed us to really establish a lot of trust and a truly collaborative nature within the organization.
07:06 Amy Verbeten
I would also really strongly echo that having a convener and someone who’s then able to be the vehicle for finding funding, routing funding into the initiative that the collaborative develops is very important. And then, finally, I think one of the other key pieces is that ensuring that the collaborative is diverse and representative of those who are most affected by the decisions that will be made. And yet, also that the folks who show up are willing to engage in solution creation, not just problem identification. So, those have been really key to our work’s success.
08:02 Chelsea Silva
Some really excellent things to add there, with the you know, establishing trust, not having predetermined outcomes, and making sure you have a diverse group of folks that are representative, and want to work together on solutions. Kate or John, would you like to add anything?
08:26 John Green
I can add a little bit to that. It seems like our situation was a little bit different, in that the reason that the organizations in our collaborative came together was to try to work on a problem that was already really well-defined. We were not looking so much to identify the problem as we were to quantify it and identify solutions. That said, the role that each organization was playing was really specific, and there was not a lot of overlap between the different organizations, and so one of the big challenges that that we faced starting off, was just finding funding to start up the collaborative and to keep it going. We were lucky enough to secure 10 years’ worth of funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NWFW) to keep kind of the basic organization going and be able to pay one of the organizations to be a convener and a coordinator for our activities. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important that kind of unrestricted, non-project-specific programmatic funding is for collaboratives like the one that we we’ve been part of.
09:42 Chelsea Silva
09:44 Kate Fitzpatrick
I will echo all of that, and particularly the funding and having a backbone organization. The one thing I might add, our organization was formed in 1996 by the Tribes, irrigation, and environmental interests, and our board is a stakeholder board. So, by our nature we’re a collaborative organization. And then we we’ve rolled through several different iterations of a broader water collaborative, trying to solve pretty tricky water policy and stream flow water rights issues. I think I would stress that it’s not just one problem we’re trying to solve. We’ve created a culture of collaboration in the Basin that’s really based on long-term trust-building and relationships. I think that foundation has led to a lot of success. When we get into increasingly tricky water problems, we have that foundation of people who know how to talk to each other and have a bit of trust, even if they’re coming from very different perspectives.
10:47 Chelsea Silva
Great! All of these elements are things that I think you’ve each presented very clearly, and also things that have so much complexity, and we can kind of get into that with the next question. But I love this idea of making sure you have a convener, you’re bringing the right people to the table, you have your problems outlined clearly, so that you know what you’re working towards, whether you develop them as a group, or you already have them figured out. And then, the unrestricted funding piece—oh! So important, so tricky! But I agree, really, really an important element.
11:34 Chelsea Silva
And that kind of leads me to this next question, which gets at some of these some challenges. So, what are your biggest challenges in accessing federal and other types of funding? And, how did your work as a coalition or a collaborative help you more effectively address those challenges? I know that’s a beast of a question, but anyone want to take it on?
12:08 John Green
I can take a stab at it! As far as specifically federal funding, it really depends on what we’re trying to get funded, and I guess this goes for state and local funding as well. I mentioned at the at the beginning, I work for a government organization, but we’re kind of a unique government organization because we have no tax base or anything like that. So, we act as a nonprofit, basically; we’re 100% grant funded. The biggest challenge that we’ve had with any type of funding is to secure that sort of unrestricted funding. There are so many aspects of what we do as a collaborative that are not project-specific. For the Resource Conservation Districts, our role is to work with landowners, and we’re basically 100% privately owned, is the ownership pattern in our in our districts. Our role is to work with landowners to identify project sites, and be able to get those get projects going on the ground. That type of funding is actually not very challenging to come by, especially when you have endangered species, at least in our case. But all of the work that goes into identifying project sites, scoping projects, developing projects, before you can get to project planning and design, it’s incredibly challenging. I wish I could say that we found a solution to that. Like I said, the NFWF funding that we had for 10 years really addressed a lot of that, and it also provided some seed money for us to use as cost share for actual project implementation funding. But as far as being able to secure the funding to pay for everything that goes up to design and implementation, we still haven’t figured that one out because everybody wants “shovel-ready,” everybody wants work on the ground. Nobody wants to acknowledge that there’s just a lot of work that goes into getting to that point. I don’t have that much inspiring to say in that regard, but that we just keep plugging away at it.
14:12 Chelsea Silva
Thank you! Kate, I saw you were ready to share something?
14:18 Kate Fitzpatrick
Yeah, I agree with everything John said, that it’s that soft money that’s really hard to get, and we all know that collaboratives take a lot of time and a lot of patience. I do feel like there’s a little bit of a shift on the funding side in some of the federal agencies we work with, to start recognizing that and to have some specific grant programs available for that. One example is the Bureau of Reclamation’s Cooperative Water Management Planning Grant has no match requirement and [provides] funding just to run the collaborative. So, I think the more that we collectively, as organizations in the conservation community, can really help change that culture, that that work is equally as important. Like John said, the project, money is there, particularly right now, with the infrastructure bill and all the federal money coming. It’s a matter of all the program development and collaboration and work behind the scenes that needs to be funded. I would encourage us all to help tell that story, so we can bring funders along in understanding why that work is important. We have a little bit of a unique situation in the Deschutes that maybe new organizations could try out. When we were formed, we were authorized by Congress to receive appropriations directly from the Bureau of Reclamation at a about $2 million a year, and we had to kind of fight for that every year. We let that authorization lapse, and we’re working on getting that back up, but that would be a really nice thing, to have a direct line to the appropriations.
15:59 Chelsea Silva
Great! That’s a neat suggestion. Nancy, it looks like you’re ready to go?
16:06 Nancy Steele
Yeah, everything that Kate and John have said I can echo. One of the issues that we’ve grappled with a lot is that if we become more successful at getting more federal funding, we also have to have more money in our bank account. We have to have more working capital in our bank account, because the federal funds come well after you’ve spent the money. They pay you for work that you’ve done, and it can be months before you actually get the money. So, what our model has been is that VWRC is part of Friends of the Verde River, but separate from us in that sense. The money flows through the nonprofit [Friends of the Verde River] to do the work of the coalition [VWRC]. What we’ve done with the nonprofit is worked very hard on increasing the kind of money we get from individual donors and from foundations that pay upfront. It can be very—I have to be kind of creative in how I explain this to people, because most people don’t understand that their money helps the on-the-ground work get done because we need that money in our bank account as working capital. That’s not something that you can explain to most donors. We kind of use this, this this heartfelt provider model of, “you love the Verde River, and you want it to keep flowing, so you should be supporting the organization.” So far it’s worked pretty well. I think that’s a model that some organizations are going to be able to adopt, some others won’t be able to adopt. It depends on how you’re formed and how you structure your fundraising.
18:08 Nancy Steele
I don’t know how to deal with that issue, because federal and state agencies, as far as I can tell, are never going to give us significant amounts of money upfront. They might give you 5% or 10% in some cases, but they’re not going to change their model. We also have a foundation who is right now funding facilitation. Sometimes we have a facilitator, sometimes we don’t, depending on whether we can get funding for it. There’s another collaborative that our organization is involved in here in the Verde Valley called Verde Front, and they do have a shared model where everyone who’s part of the collaboration pays a little bit in—usually like no more than $2,500—and that allows us to hire a facilitator. Strangely enough, the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition has been unsuccessful at implementing that kind of a model. So, you do whatever you can.
19:10 Chelsea Silva
19:13 Amy Verbeten
I would very much echo what other folks have said. We’ve also been really encouraged by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Community Watershed Program Grants, and especially the planning component, which then sets the organization up for future funding phases that focus on implementation. I hope that’s a model that will continue to grow within other agencies. Along the lines of the fact that significant additional capital is needed in order to attract most of these federal funding sources, we’ve also found that it truly is a full-time job to manage these federal grant programs, especially when you’re managing multiple. We have to fundraise for an individual on our staff whose job it is to write and then manage those large federal grants. That essentially adds to that funding burden that is not directly covered by those federal grants.
20:25 Amy Verbeten
We’ve also been able to develop relationships with the contractors that do the on-the-ground work to help get through some of the pieces, where they understand that our payment on contracts may be delayed, and so it’s helped us to reduce a little bit of the working capital that’s needed, but I would very much echo what Nancy has said, especially in the beginning: really needing to understand that we’ve got to pay all of those costs up front and then be reimbursed, which may take significant time to do.
21:05 Chelsea Silva
Thank you all for sharing these. These challenges are especially relevant right now with all the the federal funding that’s coming down the pipeline for river restoration, like you said, for these on-the-ground projects. I think you’re right, Kate, that programs like the the Bureau of Reclamation WaterSmart program or the Cooperative Watershed Management program are really unique, and hopefully we can see more of those, because they encourage a collaborative approach, which is important for this kind of work. But they also acknowledge that this kind of work doesn’t just happen, that you need support to make it happen. Some of those other challenges, I think, will take some more thought and exploration to address, though.
22:04 Chelsea Silva
This is a question that is—I’m going to give you two ways that you can respond—there are two questions that are similar and you can pick what you want to talk about. What is one thing you want people to know about making these types of collaboratives work? Or, another way, what is one piece of advice you would have for people who are trying to start a collaborative?
22:44 Nancy Steele
I’ll jump in and say, it’s hard work. I guess my advice is, if you want to start a collaborative today, be willing to undertake a lot of hard work on the startup end. It’ll pay off in the future. I was involved with the formation of a collaborative in which they were meeting every two weeks, and they did that for a year. During that process they established what they wanted to do, what they didn’t want to do; they built a lot of trust and got a lot of work done, and it was painful, and it was hard, but it paid off. Then with a mature organization, mature collaborative, you might only have to meet every quarter. I would say, be prepared for a lot of hard work at the beginning, knowing that it’s going to pay off.
23:49 John Green
I’ll add to what Nancy said, I really think the key word there is trust. In our case, trust between the different organizations involved in the collaborative, our willingness to be flexible with each other as we establish who’s responsible for what activities, and what roles, and how those interact and overlap. Maybe even more important than that is trust with the landowners that we are working with to carry out our projects. I think all of us in our in our organization had an underlying bedrock principle that we weren’t going to do anything that was going to undermine any of the trust that we were building, and that we had built either between organizations and the collaborative or between us and our community. So yeah – trust.
24:44 Chelsea Silva
All right, that’s great: trust, recognizing that it’s going to be a lot of hard work at the start, but it’ll help you later on.
24:53 Amy Verbeten
I would add, building on the trust piece, trusting the process also, and really allowing the group to evolve and allowing the collaborative process to drive the work. I think one of the most successful collaboratives that we have and continue to be a part of is very, very different than what we thought it was going to be. The collaborative changed the name, the collaborative changed the structure, the collaborative changed where and how often we meet, the collaborative changed even a lot of the fundamental goals from what we had written the original grant proposal to do. What has become is such a strong and durable partnership. The solutions that we’re generating are just so much more advanced than anything we could have come up with alone. But it can be a little hard to say, well, gosh, I started with this idea of what this was going to happen, and to allow it to really bloom into something unexpected, and yet so much richer.
26:25 Kate Fitzpatrick
I’m going to agree with that, but also add a different thing that I think it is important. I think the relationship and trust is the foundation, and then it is important to keep people at the table to have a clear goal and sense of what you’re striving for. If that sticks through the collaborative that’s cool, that’s fantastic, but being clear about that, so that people know what we’re rowing for. Then, being able to experience some results and some outcomes at some point, is really helpful, even if it’s small wins along the way, to really make the collaborative feel like it’s doing something, it’s achieving its goals.
27:08 Chelsea Silva
I love that. Having those successes along the way I think can build that trust with landowners, or whoever it is that you’re working with. It helps to kind of provide those results. And I love what you said, Amy, about trusting the process. As Nancy said, these things aren’t easy, and you can feel a little lost sometimes, but coming back to those goals, remembering that things might change, and being comfortable with that is important.
27:45 Chelsea Silva
Well, I am so thankful to hear from the four of you today. I could talk to you all day honestly. There were so many things that came out of our conversation that I’m going to have to go read some more about and think more about and I really appreciate you sharing your experiences, and I wish you well in your continued pursuit to do this work and I’m excited for the rest of the network to hear about your experiences. thank you so much, and i’ll be in touch soon.
28:21 Nancy Steele
Thank you, we appreciate the opportunity.
28:26 Amy Verbeten
Thank you so much.