May 29, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

Green entrepreneurs can be the best activists

Several groups in Canberra are now going through strategic reviews. One is the SeeChange group, which grew out of the Nature and Society Forum. The other is ACT Peak Oil. Both have websites, if you care to look them up. Both seek a balance between practical work and policy advocacy. These are hardly exclusive, and in fact, feed each other.
Like many social and environmental groups, they are caught between the rock of dependency on volunteers and the hard place of ever-expanding need for policy advocacy, activism, awareness raising, etc. Volunteers are hard to manage and tend to burn out; money is short for paid staff. SeeChange has been fortunate to have had an excellent paid community development worker, but she is now leaving and more funding must be found to continue and expand that work.
Contrary to some stereotypes, it was not the Howard government that decimated funding for community and environmental groups, but the previous Hawke-Keating mob. Working in the Prime Minister’s Department as a public affairs officer, I watched in dismay in the early 90’s as the communication and collaboration structures were dismantled. These happened nationally, and were accompanied by a similar dismantling of communication processes within the public sector. Middle ranking officers no longer had informal, but supported networks for information and skill sharing.
Now we find that the need for a whole range of active groups is greater than ever, but the old models of government support have crumbled. What is a community organisation to do?
One solution is to become entrepreneurial. This is hardly a new idea, as the outsourcing of everything from social services to aged care has led many large agencies straight to the government teat. Some call this survival, to others it represents ‘capture’. But the fact remains that there is work to be done and these groups are well placed to do it. Properly managed, with high levels of public transparency and accountability, these arrangements can work well.
Environmental services that will take us to a new low carbon, high service economy is yet another opportunity for sustaining civil society groups. Consider this partial list of services that could cater to switched-on urban dwellers who are yearning to be green:
car sharing schemes (working well in Sydney)
service directories and brokerage of green services (with electronic referral systems, similar to Amazon for books)
vegetable growing, sharing, preserving (community gardens)
recycling goods (the free-cycle network)
pooling and trading skills (as with the LETTS scheme)
training and DIY activities (such as the hardware chains already run, but greener)
sustainable house expos and open days
information sharing on all of the above.
Most of these exist already, but haven’t been fully developed to go beyond their small special interest groups. SeeChange has already implicitly taken on a modest brokerage role, by sifting through a number of potential companies for a solar panel bulk buy. Maleny in Queensland has done something similar.
Another example: the exercise of finding the best low emission paint for a particular job creates information that, once gathered, is best shared. This would create learning and spread the good news about these products.
The proliferation of green magazines aimed at middle of the road Australians is evidence that the market now exists, and is growing. Back in the 70s, there were just a few die hard hippie type sharing the Whole Earth Catalog. Now these activities are becoming mainstream, but are still under catered for at the local level.
There is still reluctance in many community oriented organisation to actually making money. It is a messy task, as it brings all the challenges of business and many of the drawbacks. Yet cooperatives are still a common structure, such as the University Bookstore network. You may well be a member of a number of similar cooperatives, but you don’t even think about it, because it works just like any other organisation you have commercial transactions with.
It is a wise group that sees and grasps these opportunities. Heaven knows that being commercial doesn’t stop big companies from taking an advocacy role, so why should it stop a co-op or not for profit? Hopefully some of these green groups will make the transition to becoming self-sustaining. That will make them well placed to evolve into the model organisations that will guide the rest of us to a calmer, greener future.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 1:22 pm | Comments Off on Green entrepreneurs can be the best activists |
Filed under: Commerce

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.