Community allotment

Public Good: Why we must value community environmental organisations

As we draw to the close of the Sylfaen project, I am reflecting on what we have learned.

The purpose of the organisations involved with Sylfaen is to protect, maintain, and enhance natural ecological assets in a way that not only serves their intrinsic well-being, but underpins the ecosystem services they provide to human beings. In plain language: they look after the environment so that the environment can look after people.

The organisation “Common Cause” presents a model of human behaviour based on research that explains things in terms of values. They claim that all human beings everywhere are governed by a common set of underlying values and that any human population can be segmented according to the values that are currently operational within their psyche. Typically, pro-environmental behaviours are driven by values in the “universal benevolence” or “transcendence” segment. The values in this segment also underlies behaviours that are directed to helping others. Business acumen, and the drive to succeed in business however, are associated with values in the “self enhancement” segment. The Common Cause theory claims that the values and behaviours associated with self enhancement are antagonistic to those of the transcendence segment. In other words, people who care about other people and the environment are not very motivated or competent business managers!

The good news, according to Common Cause, is that while business competence and universalism are antagonistic, there is a route between them. Furthermore, a person can hold conflicting values at the same time and their behaviours be driven by one set of values over another according to the most pressing need. So people who are motivated to act for the environment and the good of humanity can be trained to become competent, strategic and motivated business managers. This matters because like it or not, we operate in an economic system in which everything has a monetary value and goods and services are traded. Ecosystems and certain groups of people have been undervalued, marginalised and the harm done to them externalised from normal accounting. A sustainable future, the Wales that is described by the Well-being of Future Generations Act for example, does the opposite of this: the economic worth of ecosystem services is fully realised and all members of society are enabled to make a positive contribution.

At the Denmark Farm open day, representatives of other groups in the area talked about the constraints on income generation that they are experiencing. As I listened it became clear to me that these rural assets and their associated services were exactly the things that groups in urban areas needed. Here were the basic elements of a market place – someone with a need (the buyer) and someone able to satisfy that need (the seller). While the challenge is to bring these two together, the outcome would benefit the whole of society. How much public expenditure on drugs, primary care, social care and support services for diverse groups such as mental health patients, those seeking to rebuild their lives after incarceration, veterans, the elderly, the lonely, refugees, school children, low income families, people recovering from major illness, urban teenagers and many more could be averted if the therapeutic power of nature was more easily accessible? The community-based environmental sector needs to present itself as a cost effective solution offering financial and other co-benefits. These are of most immediate relevance to the NHS and local government but they extend way out into business and wider society.

So, the Co-op Foundation were absolutely correct in identifying the need to strengthen the financial viability and business management capacity of community based environmental organisations in Wales. These organisations need to be well managed so that they are a safe investment and a reliable contractor but they also need to develop the marketing & communication skills possessed by any successful business in order to attract potential clients. The Sylfaen project training programme covered all these aspects – financial management and planning, governance, communications and marketing – but this is only the first step. Organisations like the Wales Co-operative Centre, Cynnal Cymru and the Co-op Foundation need to work with the public and private sectors to create the market place in which these organisations can sell their services. A clearer understanding of ecosystem services is developing within the public sector and in big business but we also need local businesses to understand that ecosystem services also benefit them.

The extent to which community based environmental organisations can participate in purely commercial transactions is probably limited. We may well need to subsidise them in the same way that we are currently considering subsidising farmers for the ecological and public good they can provide. In any case, the recipients of subsidy need to be reliable, accountable and effective. So while the motivations of our community-based environmental organisations are non-commercial, we need them to be able to perform like successful businesses. The fact that a number of them have existed for several decades against all odds is a tribute to the business talent they already possess, but we must never take that for granted; and as a society, we must value what they provide and be prepared to pay for it.

Public Good: Why we must value community environmental organisations Read More »

Mission control: Take time and space to identify your vision and values

In early 2020, I began planning a bespoke training programme as part of my role on the Sylfaen Project.

The project, spearheaded by Cynnal Cymru, supported by the Wales Co-operative Centre’s Commercial Team and funded by the Co-op Foundation, aimed to work with a select number of community-led environmental organisations across Wales in order to give them stronger foundations for sustainability.

To my (very much pleasant) surprise, the most popular session by far was on the subject of Vision and Values. The reception was so positive in fact that two community councils who participated in the training requested I re-deliver the session to their board members, with one using it as the basis to go back to basics and set a revised 5-year business plan.

“The Community Councils used the session to question what it considered to be its core values, testing this in context with its constituents and users of community facilities by completing a similar exercise bespoke to our local communities. This has helped in enabling the Councils to challenge conventional ways of working and to plan a work programme based upon newly established values-based aims and objectives.”

David Davies, Cwmamman and Llanedi Community Councils.

So, why the need for a rethink?

Many people, companies and community groups underestimate the importance of properly aligned vision and values. Throughout my 20 years’ experience of supporting community organisations and businesses of all shapes and sizes, I’ve read countless business plans, and yet, more often than not, the process of identifying a vision and values is something of an afterthought.

In some cases, a set of relatively meaningless words are shoehorned in to support pre-determined actions. They state what the business or community group are going to do but give very little thought to why they are doing it.

Furthermore, even long-established companies and community organisations with a solid vision can easily get side-tracked. I have also fallen prey to this while working within community groups. Ostensibly golden opportunities can arise, in relation to funding for example, which appear too good to turn down. But, before you know it, these opportunities have deviated your energy away from your original purpose, derailing your mission, giving you less control over your direction and inevitably stifling your efforts to reach your vision!

Purposefully putting your why first

Quite often, what an organisation does takes precedence over why they’re doing it. It should be the other way around. Ethically driven private sector businesses, social enterprises and community groups will invariably have been established for a particular PURPOSE. It’s this purpose which inspires people to engage or otherwise invest their time, energy, and money. This is why it is so important to consistently revaluate vision and values to avoid mission drift, making sure they permeate everything you do.

Consistency is key

“To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit, to inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions, and to create value and make a difference”

Did you guess whose mission this is? When I ask this during my sessions, most people guess correctly. For those that can’t quite put their finger on it, this is the mission statement for Coca Cola. Okay, it may be corporate, but the lesson to be learned here is most people guess this mission statement from this single sentence. Why? Because it is imbedded in EVERYTHING they do and solidifies the way they are perceived. Think of any Coca Cola promotion and you’ll struggle to find one without the words ‘happiness’ or ‘refreshing’.

Regardless of our individual perceptions, the consistency and simplicity of their message translates worldwide. You may be far from a big company on a global stage but if you want people to understand, engage with, advocate for and invest in you, your purpose needs to be ever-present and at the forefront of your messaging.

This is echoed in Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’ theory* where he states that the most inspiring companies start with why they do what they do, then work on how they do it before identifying exactly what they do.

  1. Vision and Mission Statement: Include your greatest aspiration for your community group or business. Consider WHY you do what you do and why other people will invest time, energy, and money in you.
  2. Values: This underpins, encapsulates, and promotes your organisation’s culture and beliefs in context with the vision and determines HOW you operate and act to achieve your aims.
  3. Aims and Objectives: These should state the exact details of WHAT you aim to achieve and how you intend to implement your vision, mission and values in day-to-day practice, all while understanding why you are doing it.

As you may have now guessed, I’m a very strong advocate for people starting their journey by firmly identifying and understanding their vision, mission, values, aims and objectives at the outset. It should not be a retrospective exercise based on what they already do. If the vision and mission doesn’t transcend through every activity and action, your desired impact will soon be diluted. So, my final piece of advice is to regularly take time and space to ask yourself whether what you are currently doing meets your original purpose and never stop asking why!

*(Sinek, S. (2009) Start With Why. Penguin Business)

Paul Stepczak is the Bids and Commercial Consultant within the Wales Co-operative Centre’s Commercial Team and has more than 20 years’ experience working in community and business development, providing consultancy and training to purpose-led organisations.

Mission control: Take time and space to identify your vision and values Read More »

Sharing lessons through Sylfaen

Cynnal Cymru’s Sylfaen Project, funded by the Co-op Foundation, has concentrated on developing the financial and managerial resilience of community-based environmental organisations. In enhancing and preserving biodiversity, providing training and education, and bringing people together, these organisations deliver wide ranging benefits for local communities and society as a whole. It is essential therefore that they are well-managed, financially secure and accountable. In other words, it is in all our interests that they have strong foundations (Sylfaen is Welsh for “foundation”).

Like everything else, the project has had to adapt to cope with the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic. The training in subjects such as marketing, business planning, use of social media, and governance, has been delivered online by our partner the Wales Co-operative Centre. The plan had been for training to be delivered through a combination of face-to-face seminars/coaching plus online sessions. Networking and peer support were a major component of the project design. While Covid restricted these aspects, the groups within the project have made the best of the opportunities available and we have been grateful for the flexibility and innovation of all partners in adapting to challenging times.

As spring 2021 unfolded however and Covid restrictions lifted, we took the opportunity to meet, visit each other’s sites, learn and be inspired. So it was on a beautiful sunny day in June, that we gathered for the final Sylfaen event, this time on Anglesey with our hosts Melissa and Tim from Llyn Parc Mawr Community Woodland Group.

This was an opportunity to hear more about how the group was established, their approach to woodland management, negotiating with Natural Resources Wales and the challenges that come with running a funded project in the middle of a pandemic! We also had an opportunity to try out some green woodworking skills and hear more about their future plans and aspirations.

After a ‘panad’ (Welsh for a cup of tea), and introductions sat around in the fantastic new timber framed shelter, we headed out for a look around the site – first stop was the new bird hide, both structures were recently completed by a small local business and paid for through their National Lottery Community Fund grant. Most of the timber comes from locally sourced Welsh redwoods, sadly they couldn’t use any of their own recently felled timber as Corsican Pine isn’t suitable for use in structures. They have however made good use of it with the help of volunteers and made benches for the bird hide.

Photo of people in a bird hide.

After spending some time watching the resident ducks, dragonflies, and damselflies we headed off the beaten track on a new path that Tim had been hard at work hacking away prior to our visit. It will form part of the new circular path around the lake and will open up parts of the woodland which have never been accessible before. A boardwalk and small bridge will be installed as this is a much wetter part of the site. Much of this area is broadleaf and adds a new dimension to the forest as Llyn Parc Mawr is mainly a conifer plantation and arboretum and was originally used as the nursery for Newborough Forest. The lake was built in 1988 as part of European Year of Environment and now forms a wildlife haven for an abundance of seasonal wildlife.

After a very adventurous trek through the “jungle” we found ourselves at the back of the woodland where NRW have recently clear felled a small section, the group have started planting here and Tim talked us through the decision process and how the new saplings are faring up in their new home. It was an interesting mix of species which includes Swamp Cypress which will help create a mangrove effect, Red Alder, Tulip trees, Spruce and Scotts Pine. A great mix of nursery trees and nitrogen fixers.

Small frog sitting in the palm of a hand

We made our way back to the shelter in time for a delicious lunch prepared by a couple of Llyn Parc Mawr members. We had time to watch some short films developed as part a social history project documenting the village and community’s fascinating history and includes stories from some of the older residents who remember the marram grass industry and forest development. You can watch for yourselves:

Pobl Niwbwrch a’r Moresg The People of Newborough and Marram grass – YouTube

We were joined for the afternoon by one of Llyn Parc Mawr’s new board members. We split up for afternoon sessions; Tim lead another walk and talk and was a chance to network and ask some more in depth questions on his activities. Melissa led a craft workshop where we made some gypsy flowers using a draw knife and shave horse. It was an enjoyable and relaxing afternoon learning new skills and chatting about future project plans.

Women demonstrating green woodworking skills using a 'shave horse'.

It was a great end to the Sylfaen project – participants have really enjoyed the opportunity to finally meet face to face, visiting each other’s sites and networking. The groups have found many synergies in experiences even though they are at different stages of development there’s always so much to learn and share – from attracting new board members to applying and managing funding, site management, running activities and sharing experiences over this unprecedented year of lockdowns. Perhaps the imposition of lockdowns has in some ways been a blessing; unable to run training sessions or engage with the public, colleagues have had more time to learn, reflect and review. Melissa, for example, has found the social media training very useful. It has helped Llyn Parc Mawr expand their reach and consequentially generate additional income. Having offered Forest School activities on site for a long time, the group is now being contacted by other organisations to run paid-for Forest School sessions on their behalf.

It was great to hear everyone has so many exciting plans and that from the hardships and worries we have all experienced in recent times, now more than ever there is a need and demand for community projects and volunteer opportunities. (We had such a nice time we even forgot to say hello to the resident red squirrels!)

This site visit report was written by Sara Wynne Pari, a local resident and colleague working in the community environmental sector. This illustrates the integrated and collegiate nature of community environmental work: we are united across Wales by a common purpose to halt the decline in biodiversity, address the nature crisis, and create a harmonious future for humans and the species with which we share this wonderful place. One of the key outcomes from the Sylfaen project was the confirmation of the need for community based environmental organisations to strengthen their links and develop an organisational ecology in which mutual interests are shared and practical/economic needs are met through collaboration. In 2021/22 we will concentrate on this and integrate our Eco Literacy work with the legacy of Sylfaen.

Sharing lessons through Sylfaen Read More »

Project Sylfaen

In 2019, Cynnal Cymru, in partnership with Wales Co-operative Centre, won funding from the Co-op Foundation to take six community-led environmental organisations in Wales on a development journey. The aim was to deliver a bespoke programme of capacity-building support to help enhance the engagement, governance, business planning, income generation and other skills needed to sustain a successful community venture.

The six organisations that joined the programme were:

Each received a root and branch review of their skills and development needs. These identified common challenges around things like governance structures and resisting mission-drift amid pressure to generate income.

These insights were used to create a tailored 12 month programme of development support, complemented by virtual gatherings to share learning and experience. Sessions ranged from covering the basics – Financial Planning and Record-keeping – to the exploratory and aspirational – Rethinking Income Streams and Enterprising Leadership. Other topics included marketing, safeguarding, strengths mapping and business planning.

In order to maximise the benefits of the programme, each of the six ‘core beneficiaries’ were invited to bring along there other local community environmental partners to training and networking sessions. As a result, 15 other organisations were able to share in these capacity-building sessions with 102 training places being taken up by 40 staff members, councillors, project volunteers and trustees.

Although almost all of the programme had been expected to be face-to-face pre-Covid, inevitably the majority of the training, peer-learning and networking activities moved online. Some project visits and Open Days – the most eagerly-anticipated aspects of the Sylfaen programme – did take place however towards the end of the project.

Whilst feedback about the whole programme has been positive, The response to these visits has been the most inspirational, highlighting the importance of connecting environmental visionaries with others striving for similar aims and experiencing similar barriers.

“Thank you, Cynnal Cymru. I think it is a truly worthwhile project and one that I feel needs to continue.”

Robbie Bowman, Coed Dylan

For these organisations, Sylfaen provided not only “..a renewed faith in humanity” (Melissa Dhillon, Llyn Parc Mawr Community Woodland) but “.. a sense that we are part of a larger group” which makes “travelling this, sometimes lonely, road a nicer experience.” (Robbie Bowman, Coed Dylan)

This joining-up of minds and actions is something that Cynnal Cymru routinely enables – whether it’s through our awards, newsletters, summits or networking events. This is because, as neatly summed up by another participant, “There are many people doing amazing things, often in isolation.”

Breaking new ground, undertaking pioneering projects, or even struggling to maintain tried and tested methods in the face of austerity can be daunting. Bringing people together, not only to share ideas but to remind them that they are not alone, generates a tremendous energy and refreshes the determination to continue. Cynnal Cymru has been delighted to be a part of the Sylfaen programme because, as another participant shares, it is initiatives like this that boost not only individual projects but progress towards sustainability at a national scale.

“One of the best aspects of the Sylfaen project is finding out about other projects across Wales that are contributing to sustainable development and meeting the people who are behind them.

If there is to be a greater movement across Wales towards sustainability, it is important that initiatives like Sylfaen continue to facilitate this bringing together of people … to work collaboratively towards a sustainable future.”

Mara Morris, Denmark Farm

You can read more reflections about the Sylfaen project in the Resources section below.

Project Sylfaen Read More »

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