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Little Pieces & Big Connections: What EMCN Learned from Becoming a Sustainability Champion

How can organizations work towards fulfilling their mission while also serving as role models of sustainability? The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) is among the many organizations that face this challenging tug-of-war in the face of limited time, funding, and capacity.

To give them a boost, the EMCN attended The Natural Step’s NGO Sustainability Champions Workshop Series in 2017 alongside a diverse group of Edmonton non-profits intent on building strategic planning capacity, improving sustainability and networking with other organizations doing the same.

We spoke with Marla Welk, EMCN’s Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator, to hear more about what EMCN took into the workshop series and, more importantly, what benefits they’ve seen since.

Going into the workshop, how did EMCN see itself as an organization that needed to work on sustainability?

Initially, it was more to learn about different approaches to developing a strategic plan. There wasn’t a focus, per se, on sustainability or looking at it from an environmental perspective, but just different things we should be considering when we are developing a strategic plan and not limiting ourselves to one way or another.

What kind of tools did the workshop provide EMCN?

We’re a service agency and we’re definitely impacted by what’s going on globally. Being able to look at that not just from a human perspective but also looking at what’s going on in other countries can impact us. Looking at hurricanes, for example; they displace people and we’ve seen refugees coming from these countries.

When we’re looking at where we’re going to be in 20 years, those things definitely play a factor in areas where you need to pivot. Some of the things that popped up for us was, for example, ethical sourcing. I hadn’t even thought about it, but afterwards I came back to the office and started asking, “Where do we order our supplies from?”

One of the unique features of the workshop is that you are required to build yourself a tangible strategic plan. What did that look like for EMCN?

One of the goals that resulted from the workshop — and this was a goal that we had prior to it — was placing a commitment towards long term stability and sustainability. This is very broad, as strategic plans usually are. What we included in that was, for example, should we be doing an environmental scan? Do we need to do a facility assessment to see if there are things we could do to improve our carbon footprint?

We also worked through Manfred Max-Neef’s fundamental human needs and these are all things that tie heavily into our values and mission as an organization. We basically took that and it helped us place more focus on our staff’s health and well-being, because obviously if our staff are feeling really well then that projects onto our programs delivery.

When you’re in a workshop, it’s definitely a lot to absorb, but once you think of it on a smaller scale and think about the little pieces you really start to see the connections and why you have to look at all the pieces of sustainability to make it work. It was exciting to see how that played into who we are as an organization.

Now almost a year beyond the workshop, how is EMCN using the insight gained from the workshop?

Some of the things we’ve implemented are, for example, developing a succession framework, which promotes staff health and well-being and enhances their workplace practices.

And when we’re working in teams or doing strategic planning, it’s definitely something that has become part of that framework, for sure.

Anything else to share?

One thing I really enjoyed was working with other NGOs. You don’t get to do that in a setting like that to that extent. It was kind of like a safe space where you could explore big issues or challenges that you might face in incorporating something like this in your office. Some NGOs that were there were well ahead of the other groups, and we all looked to them and how they were doing things.

It was really neat to see how some people new going into the course exactly what they were looking for and then they helped some of us other people who didn’t quite know what that was. I really liked that part of it. Having that diversity of opinions, it was nice to talk through that.

(Conversation edited for brevity)

The Sustainability Champions Workshop Series is back for 2018. Is your organization interested in improving its sustainability and capacity for strategic planning? There are still limited seats available.