Receptivity to change and creativity core elements of strong ENGOs

Lacking professional training in business management and organizational capacity building, environmentalists and other activists often face a steep learning curve when managing a non-profit or environment non-governmental organization (ENGO).

Identifying a need to address this dearth of organizational training in the environmental sector, Paul Bubelis, a biologist and former executive director of the Ontario Environment Network, founded the Sustainability Network in 1997.

“The backdrop is that you need a good foundation of knowledge to effectively run an organization,” says Bubelis. “The more traditional advocate has a background in ecology or biology with little management training. But this sector needs good managers, especially as it matures and professionalizes. We want to put a greater emphasis on that.”

Using learning networks (two or three day workshops with multiple key organizational leaders designed to re-invigorate ENGO management and stimulate creative solutions to organizational goals), capacity building tools like media lists management e-resources, as well as one-off workshops and public forums, the network’s focus is on ways of creatively handling funding and resource-building challenges, while supporting networking and information-sharing practices.

“The question we help organizations answer is – ‘what do you think you need to be truly effective?’” says Bubelis.

Sustainability Network, which shares space with 14 other progressive non-profits at the Centre for Social Innovation (a unique community hub on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto) recently hosted a workshop entitled “Designing Vibrant NonProfit Organizations. The workshop examined ways of breaking stagnant patterns of interaction and re-vitalizing small organizations through improved communication and inter-organizational congruity.

“There has been exciting growth in the environmental non-governmental organization sector since we began eight years ago,” says Bubelis. “We assist in helping organizations develop their vision, discover compelling ways to reach new potential members, and discover what their niche is. There has been a big change in how people think about organizations – but how good are they at marshalling resources?”

As professionalization becomes the norm, ENGOs must ward against becoming static and regimented, he adds. But, as few activists enter management positions with prior business training or bias, there is often an underlying receptivity to new ideas, and a willingness to consistently embrace new methods.

“Non-profits are staffed generally by people who challenge authority,” he says, “and there are many healthy aspects to this. This means there is greater curiousity and a refreshing openness to new ideas.”

Bubelis looks favourably on the development (albeit, slow) of business school curriculums that focus on strengthening the social economy and introduce professional business management training into the non-profit sector. At the University of Toronto, students from the Rotman business school have developed the Rotman Nexus, a consulting agency for the non-profit sector. The Social Economy Centre, a research hub co-run by OISE professor Jack Quarter and doctoral candidate Laurie Mook, aims at mapping the impact of the social mission sector, and through applied research, providing new tools to develop networks and improve organizational efficiency

“We too want to facilitate cross-organizational, non-traditional alliances,” says Bubelis. “Slowly we are seeing these partnerships develop, because you have to do more than preach to the converted. But the environmental movement needs to engage a wider cross-section of society. It’s still too insular – we’re not engaging Canadians as we should.”