We Can Work It Out


By Paul Beaudet, Executive Director, Wilburforce Foundation

This was originally published on the Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog, as part of their Shifting Winds series

The Edgewater, constructed to accommodate visitors to the 1962 World Fair in Seattle, was always intended to be temporary, perched at the edge of what was then an industrial waterfront. In the months after the fair, its rooms sat mostly vacant. That is, until the Beatles arrived. Hotels that had hosted the Fab Four during their U.S. concert tour in 1964 quickly learned that they needed to defend their properties against masses of crazed fans. Many Seattle hotels refused to accommodate the British invaders, but not the Edgewater.

Built atop a pier that juts into Puget Sound, the Edgewater was easy to secure and the Beatles settled in behind a protective barricade. Soon thereafter, a photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo fishing from their hotel window went viral — long before that term was even a thing. The Edgewater quickly became the stop of choice for other musicians, including the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. That “temporary” hotel is still standing today.

As a foundation that works to protect places — albeit those that are wild and not urban — we at Wilburforce Foundation recognize that the fate of places can hinge on an historic event. The election of 2016 was just such a moment. Our grantees, who work to conserve important lands, waters, and wildlife in Western North America, are suddenly facing an administration that enthusiastically promotes the exploitation of public lands to extract oil, gas, and coal, with fewer environmental protections and little regard for endangered species or other ecological, economic, spiritual, or recreational values associated with wild landscapes.

After more than a decade of working with a federal government where at least one branch generally favored environment-friendly policies, most of our grantees have little or no experience working with decision makers in executive and legislative offices dominated by a party hostile to a conservation agenda.

The program teams at Wilburforce developed our own ideas about what we should do to assist grantees in this new context, and we wondered how we could test our assumptions with our partners. Surveys or interviews of key grantees might offer some insights. But these might fail to capture new creative thinking that arises when people come together.

And so this spring, Wilburforce worked with Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), a capacity-building intermediary that provides services exclusively to the foundation’s grantees, to convene 56 conservation leaders at the Edgewater Hotel in May. This group included a sampling of national and regional grantees — from scrappy grassroots organizations to large green groups — focusing on place-based advocacy, community organizing, science, and policy.

Attendees met over three days, participating in sessions that were designed to assure that attendees were “talked at” as briefly as possible, and only to set the context for deeper conversations facilitated by TREC staff.

In keeping with the historic location, the arc of the event could be described musically through a well-curated Beatles playlist. For example, our attendees arrived in a state of elevated anxiety:

  • Help!
  • Tell Me Why
  • The Fool On The Hill
  • Misery
  • I Just Don’t Understand
  • I’m So Tired

We knew we could move to a more upbeat segment of the Beatles canon, one that featured relationships as the bedrock of the work we undertake. Our grantees’ relationships with us — and with each other — inform the types of capacity and program investments our foundation makes. We encouraged participants to use the convening to make connections, share ideas, and surface needs.

Imagine, if you will, the following playlist as the philosophical framework for what followed:

  • Come Together
  • Fixing A Hole
  • We Can Work It Out
  • All Together Now
  • With A Little Help From My Friends

Currently, we’re sifting through pages of notes, red-dotted priority lists, participant survey responses, and direct feedback from grantees. Wilburforce and TREC staff are already considering some investments in new programing. And we’ve uncovered a few key takeaways that should be useful to other funders, regardless of the issues upon which they work:

  • Don’t presume to know what grantees need. In our role working with large numbers of grantees, we often assume that our perch gives us a unique perspective; that grantees “don’t know what they don’t know.” Collectively, though, they know more than we do. While we could have guessed at some of the findings that came out of the convening, there were new ideas that we might have never conceived.
  • We’re not just playing defense. We may not advance a proactive policy agenda at the federal level, but we can continue to broaden our movements, break down partisan divides, and shift advocacy efforts to state and municipal governments where we may have more traction.
  • Relationships matter. Of all of the outcomes we had proposed, deeper connection was one that grantees seemed to value more than any other. New friendships were made, networks were strengthened, and ideas were shared across organizations and geographies. Foundations have the resources to bring people together. We should do it more often.
  • A new world may require new metrics. One participant lamented that though their context had changed significantly, many funders were still holding them accountable to deliverables and outcomes that were developed (or imposed) when proactive conservation strategies seemed likely to prevail. This concern was echoed by others, who affirmed that fewer restrictions and more flexibility could help them as they adapted to the new reality and identified fresh outcomes.

There are more specific recommendations flowing from this convening that will guide Wilburforce’s work. We’ll be considering ideas around strategic communications, skills building, and advocacy. We won’t be able to do everything we want to do, but we will do something.

In closing, I am confident that a more hopeful Beatles playlist will describe the future to which we aspire:

  • Revolution
  • Getting Better
  • Here Comes The Sun
  • I Feel Fine 

Paul Beaudet is executive director of the Wilburforce Foundation and a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @WilburforceFdn.