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Environmental Nonprofits: Sharing with Government, Serving the Public

San Gabriel MtnsAs the third sector, after the government and the private sector, the nonprofit sector is able to focus on specific concerns without the constraints of either bureaucracy or the perverse incentives that can occur within the private sector. When the nonprofit sector provides public goods, the question often asked is why such goods and services are not provided by the government or repackaged for sale by a private corporation. The answer to this question lies in the flexibility of structure and organization available to nonprofit entities. The relatively flat and lean organizational structure of many nonprofits allows for the mobilization of resources and deployment of talent where they can yield the greatest benefit. Expert volunteers from a broad range of backgrounds are able to work on projects on a discontinuous basis to ensure fresh ideas and work in ways that are innovative and appropriate to the environment and the task at hand. The ability of volunteers to move fluidly in and out of projects as needed and according to their expertise creates a vibrancy and freshness to the work dynamic that is difficult to replicate among 40 hour per week workers.

The San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy is an example of the flexibility of action afforded that a nonprofit organization can achieve (Reconnecting the San Gabriel Valley, 2000). This regional Southern California nonprofit started more than 15 years ago and is a network of smaller local nonprofit organizations that focus on preservation, sustainability and education. The Glendora Community Conservancy (GCC) is part of this network. While the greater network allows for shared best practices and a provides a larger advocacy base for engaging with local, state and federal government, the smaller operating units retain focus on the specifics of the local environment and the needs and preferences of the community. Through this structure, GCC brings no-cost fresh ideas, partnerships, workshops and advisory boards to assist local nonprofit environmental conservancies/organizations that focus on environmental sustainability. Collaboration and exchanges of ideas and information among the local to sub-regional to regional conservancies has grown in excess of a dozen over the more than 20 years since inception. The concept has grown beyond county lines, drawing in other nonprofits with other organizational models also looking for shared concern for the environment, sustainability and healthy habitats with accompanying methods that have become local to regional solutions and shared networking. The relatively lean organizational structures and network of volunteers sustained through a shared mission and common trust has nurtured this growth.

In focusing on the GCC over its two decades of service and advocacy for community environmental needs, three achievements stand out:

  1. Successful acquisition and management of key watershed lands totaling nearly 650 acres of urban/wildlands interface which provide both economic benefits and natural resource protection, including water resources, fire protection and habitat health;
  2. Successful rescue and management of lands with rare and endangered species, plus raising community and regional awareness of the mutual benefits of research tested conservation methods which benefit all – urban and wildlands areas; and
  3. Nature Center and Popular Community Trails to share the dividends, education, fitness, projects and resources available through involvement with the conservancies and take the conservancy lessons learned another step in application to home, business, schools, churches, service clubs, parks and communities with new programs customized to the users’ interests and needs.

Each of the above-mentioned successes started with a vision and plan. Flexibility, creativity, expertise and team-building among the different board members, volunteers, and board advisory members culminated in the multiple strategies and next steps taken. Strategically engaging and deploying experts and other volunteers where they can produce the greatest results have resulted in these outcomes:

  1. Land Acquisition successes came through teamwork in watershed, natural resources, real estate, grant writing and resourcefulness for making the match that was essential;
  2. Conservation Management came through individual relationship building with universities and successful managers and models of other successful programs and funding related to conservation themes and programs; and
  3. Along with successful acquisitions and protections, a natural outcome is increased interest by the community in their desire to know more about conservation, watersheds, plants, wildlife, ecology and more in addition to linking recreational and educational interests to the successes.

With more interest and greater funding, programs, volunteers, participation and involvement, projects emerge to keep the cycle of conservation success and sustainability alive and thriving with these subtle cultural changes that have amazing and healthful benefits!

While sustainability as a public good is gaining more attention as a priority for the public sector, nonprofits such as GCC and the wider network of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy have contributed to environmental and community sustainability for more than a generation and can offer advice on local environmental best practices to the public and private sectors. An additional layer of sustainability is offered by the organizational structure of nonprofits such as GCC that are lean, flexible and built on trust. The ability to draw from a pool of committed volunteers liberates specific talents of volunteers at all levels to contribute. In this way, GCC provides public goods that the government does not have the expertise to, and that are not directly tied to the individual benefits from the public goods to the volunteers.

Yes, environmental nonprofits can and do make a remarkable difference by sharing roles and responsibilities with government, thereby serving the greater good of the public by nurturing and meeting unmet needs.

(With acknowledgement to the decades of volunteers, including Moana and Rona, for their contributions to this meaningful piece of nonprofit history.)


Author: Dr. Ann Croissant, Professor Emeritus, is Founder and President/Board of Directors for two nonprofit environmental organizations: SGMRC and Glendora Community Conservancy – combined 38 years in Los Angeles County. She has degrees in biology and math from UNC, a master’s in plant physiology from UW-Madison, and Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, higher education and botany from USC. She has been a faculty member at Cal Poly Pomona and Azusa Pacific University in science and education (undergraduate and graduate), and taught internationally in master’s degree leadership studies programs. Dr. Croissant also serves as a member of the California State University – Pomona MiPAAC (Masters in Public Administration Advisory Council).


Image courtesy of http://www.exervive.com/photo/Snowcapped-San-Gabriel-Mountains.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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