Sustainable Strategies for Small Communities

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While many environmental problems are global in scale, effective action often begins at the local level. Thriving community-based environmental organizations are a powerful tool to solve many of the world’s sustainability problems and lay the foundation for the larger environmental movement.  This network is essential to educate the public about the importance of sustainable practices, build political will, facilitate productive conversations, and take real steps toward environmental protection.

Despite their importance, grassroots environmental organizations often struggle to survive. Many of these groups are volunteer-run, with no paid staff. Their operations are strained by limited funding, resources, time, and expertise. Problems resulting from these constraints can be diverse: internal conflict can create divisions among the group’s leaders, the group’s message may not be reaching its target audience, or the group may be reinventing the wheel every time there is a leadership change.  As a result, important work becomes mired in problems associated with running the organization. 

Sustainable Strategies for Small Communities is targeted towards volunteer-run grassroots community groups, or those with a small paid staff of one to three employees. This report is intended to serve as a basic manual in organizational dynamics, applicable to environmental groups with a broad range of missions - whether they focus on land development, energy and natural resources consumption, transportation policy, or agricultural health. 

This report is useful for groups just starting up, or groups who are struggling to keep going. The report is sensitive to the fact that no two groups operate in the same environment, or face exactly the same challenges.  Users of this manual are encouraged to adapt the recommendations to their own unique situation.

Sustainable Strategies is designed as a concise, accessible, and insightful guide to the operational issues that often derail organizational success.  With guidance around a comprehensive set of topics, the goals of this report are to help small, locally-based environmental organizations to:

  • Function effectively;
  • Resolve conflict;
  • Avoid common pitfalls;
  • Plan proactively;
  • Achieve project goals;
  • Reflect community concerns, hopes, and ideals;
  • Grow in size and scope; and
  • Achieve long-term organizational sustainability.

In order to determine best practices, research was conducted at three levels: (1) a review of applicable scholarly literature; (2) a survey of Pennsylvania EACs in conjunction with selected interviews; and (3) interviews with organizations nationally that work on local environmental initiatives.


Partner Background: This research was conducted in partnership with the following organizations.

Springfield Township is a community of approximately 20,000 citizens on the northwestern border of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, PA. The township created an EAC in April of 2006 to advise the Board of Commissioners and other Township advisory boards, commissions and committees, and to educate the public about issues relating to the management, promotion, use, and protection of the Springfield Township environment. Since its creation, the EAC has successfully completed several water resource projects, including the creation of a township watershed map and a presentation on the state of streams in the township. The Springfield Township EAC, one of more than 150 EACs in Pennsylvania, is now well-established and is poised to expand their role in the community.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council is a statewide non profit organization that protects and restores the natural and built environments through innovation, collaboration, education and advocacy. PEC believes in the value of partnerships with the private sector, government, communities, and individuals to improve the quality of life for all Pennsylvanians. PEC is also the statewide champion of EACs and works to create, promote, and sustain the EAC Network. Environmental Advisory Councils (EACs) advise the governing body of their municipality on environmental issues, serve as liaisons to represent both the community and decision makers; are a focal point for funding and raise money for projects; and engage residents, community volunteers, and the private sector in natural resource protection.

Video by Hadi Khan

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