The Power of Collaboration for Clean Water

The Power of Collaboration for Clean Water

The following post was originally published on the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities blog. Read the original post here

 

The Delaware River Basin supplies drinking water to over 15 million people throughout the mid-Atlantic, and is the lifeblood of the region’s cities, suburbs, forests, and farms. Today, in spite of an impressive recovery over the past four decades (thanks largely to the Clean Water Act) the watershed is at risk of “death by a thousand cuts” due to severe fragmentation of local land use decisions, farming practices and stormwater management. These thousand cuts, in the long term, jeopardize clean water for five percent of the US population. These challenges are not headline-grabbing crises. Rather they are incremental, cumulative and deeply embedded in local land use policies.

How can a regional funder effectively catalyze change in such a complex system? No doubt many TFN members grapple with this question in your work for livable and healthy communities. This question is rich for us, especially today as the federal government is increasingly less likely to take the lead on driving change at the regional scale, even as a rapidly changing climate hits our communities harder every year.

Six years ago, we reworked our environmental grantmaking to focus on the protection and restoration of clean water in the Delaware River watershed. As part of that shift, we developed the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI). Today, five years and more than $100 million in DRWI investments later, we have learnings, both inspiring and humbling, to share as the next three-year phase of this program begins.

When we got started, there were dozens of nonprofit organizations working across the basin to reduce stormwater pollution, protect forests, bring back native plants, and support river-friendly farms. But, absent a shared plan of action and with little coordination, as a community we were missing opportunities to leverage and build upon each other’s successes to meaningfully improve water quality. And, because of this fragmentation, it was nearly impossible to standardize water quality metrics—key to understanding progress over time.

We began by tapping the expertise of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Open Space Institute to use data to identify the most promising places where, with our funding, we could tip the scale in favor of clean water. Next, we engaged more than 40 conservation nonprofits who work on the ground and provided them with support to develop shared action plans, in teams, to focus their efforts in those places and on a list of four key threats to clean water. Finally, we set up measurement sites in the same places so we could assess impact effectively.

Our goal was to focus and amplify the excellent land protection and restoration work already underway across the basin, by using our grantmaking and convening powers to encourage collaboration and alignment.

 

Five key components of the initiative are worth sharing, because they seem to be working well as we launch the second phase of this work:

  1. Grantee Collaboration: The Initiative was conceived and is run as a collaborative among more than 40 grantees working in teams in eight parts of the watershed. This is both challenging and rewarding, and we’re achieving aligned impact in carefully selected places that serve as laboratories for change and models for expansion.
  2. The Power of Intermediaries: Facilitating collaboration across more than 40 nonprofit partners is a huge job and requires significant expertise and ongoing attention. We have invested in the very skilled Institute for Conservation Leadership to develop, nurture and steward the DRWI network.
  3. Embedding Science: We are using active monitoring and modeling to ensure that scarce dollars are spent in the most efficient and effective ways. This is often a culture-shift for small organizations that don’t have science-based capacity or culture. We partner with the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University as the science lead for DRWI, and also engaged Stroud Water Research Center—both of which provide essential technical assistance.
  4. Funder Coordination: Our collaborative approach has helped unlock other funding streams from local, state and federal sources for core project work on the ground, as we have been able to demonstrate “transformative” partnerships that go beyond “transactional” partnerships. Partnering with the Open Space Institute and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to manage re-grant programs focused on land protection and restoration, respectively, enables us to leverage the expertise of these key partners to direct funds to projects that will produce the greatest return on investment.
  5. Storytelling: Communications is a key pillar of this Initiative. It’s important to leverage grantees’ ability to tell nuanced, local, powerful stories about the positive impact of land use decisions on water quality. Strong storytelling grows support, which will allow us to scale up this approach across the watershed.

 

As the second phase of the work begins, we face three key challenges that are also worth sharing:

  • Social equity considerations were not baked into the formation of the DRWI, despite our recognition that clean water is particularly important to vulnerable downstream communities who pay the price for upstream pollution. As we focus in on the equity dimensions of our work, we face challenges connecting these dots.
  • An external evaluation of the DRWI reinforced the need for clear, measurable goals. While we can’t reasonably claim that our funding will protect water quality in the entire basin, we are now refocused on demonstrating impact within our key focus areas. This change—from the rhetorical to the achievable—is making a difference as the initiative evolves.
  • While science-based decision-making is critical, it is not always enough. Grantees need the freedom to work on policy change that shifts the rules in favor of clean water actions at the local and state levels. This is particularly true as the Trump administration rolls back clean water protections, and local ordinances and state regulations become ever more important.

 

We are already thinking about where we want the Initiative to be at the end of 2021, and how over the next two years we can meaningfully evolve DRWI from a William Penn Foundation funding strategy to a sustainable regional initiative. To help us navigate this evolution, we’d love to hear from other TFN members about experiences you’ve had with regional initiatives. Feel free to reach out to me at ajohnson@williampennfoundation.org.

More information about the Delaware River Watershed Initiative can be found here.