June/July 1995 Issue #34

Ephemeral Organizations:Building Traditions

Some organizations are ephemeral. They are created to deal with one particular situation, and then disband when that problem is solved. For example, The Endless Mountains Forum was formed in rural Pennsylvania in 1978, by seven couples who were concerned about the lack of information about and involvement in local public issues in their county. At informal dinner gatherings at members' houses, they chose a name and decided to hold public meetings about local issues, such as land use and development, hunger among local people, and acid rain. The group also held Meet the Candidates Nights before local elections, allowing candidates to explain their ideas and to answer questions from the general public. Forum members paid dues of $10 per year, and contributed their time to make telephone calls, distribute flyers, and conduct meetings.

After a few years, the Forum's activities ceased. Some of the Forum's most active members moved out of the area. Those remaining met several times, but did not feel the urgent need to plan any more public meetings. However, the precedent for holding public meetings on county issues had been established, and was continued by other organizations. Local officials had more respect for the views of citizens, after attending meetings organized by them, and continued to hold their own meetings.

An outside funder (had there been one) might have been disappointed at the Forum's demise. No enduring structure had been created. Looking back, however, the Forum was not a failure. Its members had created a mechanism to meet a variety of needs, both social and political. When the Forum was no longer necessary, it dissolved. But its members had learned about the organizations, laws and social and political structure of the county. They had met many of its influential people. They carried this knowledge with them, and used it to contribute to other groups they joined in the future. Also, realizing the popularity of "Meet the Candidates" meetings, other organizations moved into the vacuum and began to sponsor them.

Many miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and more than a decade later, people throughout the formerly Soviet-dominated nations have been using their new freedoms to contribute to similar processes. In a recent instance, a group of citizens in Salacgriva, Latvia decided to do something to keep used batteries out of local landfills. They created themselves as a new branch of the (already established) Latvian Society of Nature Conservation, and obtained a grant of $450 USD. They organized a campaign to collect used batteries. Fact sheets were compiled, printed and distributed, explaining the dangers of discarding used batteries in landfills. Explanations of the collection procedure were placed in local newspapers. Stationary and mobile collection boxes were made and distributed by local student volunteers. Once the project was underway, it was given additional financial support by the municipal government, which also agreed to collect the batteries. This campaign, initiated by an NGO, showed public support for safer means of battery recycling. The municipal government agreed to continue the project in the next year.

The achievements of the Salacgriva project went beyond the development of recycling: all those who participated also contributed to building a tradition of active participation in their community.

Small Projects: Building Blocks of Larger Organizations

Some organizations initially form to complete one project, have some success, and then look around for other related tasks to accomplish. One Lithuanian biologist and teacher joined the Atgaya Club in Kaunas, a branch of the Lithuanian Green Movement, obtained a water quality monitoring kit in 1994, and received a small grant ($ 468 USD) to teach students how to use it. The purpose was "to help children to learn how environmental protection projects are prepared and realized. In the process of the project children learn about how water quality is monitored, what are the main pollutants, where they come from, and what can and should be done to reduce the pollution." This activity drew so much attention that increasing numbers of students, and other teachers, wanted to join. For 1995, this teacher expanded her project, getting a $750 USD grant to study a different stream, and also to prepare lesson plans for teachers based on the experience collected during that study. She organized seminars for teachers interested in environmental education (mainly biology teachers), explained the use of water monitoring projects in teaching, and handed out the materials she had prepared. Working with other teachers and scientists, she is currently expanding the training to teachers in 60 schools throughout Lithuania. One small project has become a nationwide support network.

Small Projects: Links to Local Communities

Small projects also help existing large organizations to re-define themselves and connect with community needs. They can attract new members because they depend on volunteer labor for success. They appeal to a broader base of the population because they respond to local needs.

The Estonian Green Movement was founded in 1987, using the opportunities of glasnost and perestroika to organize public response to Soviet environmental threats to the country, particularly a proposal to develop large phosphorite mines. The wave of public support for the EGM reflected the growing expression of nationalism and the independence movement. But after the original goals had been achieved, public support for the Estonian Green Movement declined.

Some individual environmentalists remained active, and have maintained the EGM structure of groups in different towns. They are now working on specific projects focused on local needs. For example, in response to several incidents in Estonia where discarded radioactive materials found their way into people's homes and businesses, the Estonian Green Movement group in Tartu recently purchased a radiation detector with a grant of $660 USD. Their goal is to investigate different areas, to locate radioactive objects, and to inform authorities and the public about dangerous findings.

The effectiveness of their purchase of the radiation detector will depend on the extent to which it is used to accurately locate problem areas and materials, the way the public is informed of problems, and the success of EGM members in working with local and national elected officials, members of the environmental ministry, and the citizens.

Small Projects as "Pilot Projects" for Replication and Expansion

One member of the Lithuanian Ornithological Society was concerned about the loss of nesting habitat for rare species of birds. He has parlayed this concern into the first peat bog remediation project in Lithuania, which has become a model for the Lithuanian Environmental Ministry. The Dovainai Peat Bog Remediation Project was started with a grant of $500. The first step was a study to gather data on protected plant species which survived in a 25 hectare peat bog adjacent to Zemaitia National Park. The second step was the preparation of a detailed remediation plan, and to start some remedial work.

In the following year, several islands were created. Participants have also carefully selected and planted species of plants which had been present in the bog before sections were dug up. This project is now being viewed as a model for others throughout the Baltic region, and has attracted additional sources of support for its expansion.

Organizing to Complete a Small Project

The following steps are useful when organizing a group of people for a small or first-time project:
  1. Define a clear and attainable goal In discussions during the planning stage, move from the general to the specific. For example, from worries about trash all over the city to a project to clean up one public park.
  2. Involve volunteers Volunteers contribute according to their interests and abilities. They are usually vital to the success of a small project. Not only do they work, they spread the news about the activity. Pride in achieving a tangible result, new-found friends, and the company of others working as a team, are some of the rewards of volunteering. It takes time to develop a "volunteer ethic" in a society, but each volunteer helps to establish the practice.
  3. Inform others in your community about the project Even if they react skeptically at first, they will be interested. Local newspaper, radio and television reporters will often be glad to have a new story. Support may arrive from unexpected sources if enough people learn about your efforts.
  4. Plan for a visible result Through the achievement of visible results such as publication of a pamphlet or clean-up of a riverfront, the NGO members, and their previously uninvolved friends, relatives and neighbors, see the rewards of their efforts. This can provide them with the confidence to move on to other projects.
  5. Ask for contributions of money It is easier to ask for $5 than for $500. When the amount of money needed for a project is relatively small, people from the commuity are more likely to contribute. Often "start up" money from a small international grants project gets an NGO project started, and then other funders are more willing to contribute.
  6. Document the results. Photographs of the activity can be very valuable to illustrate the work that was done. So can journal entries or other accounts by participants, and local newspaper and magazine articles.

Organizing to Expand a Small Project and To Build An NGO

Evidence of the successful completion of one project is the best step for the continuation or expansion of an organization. If a group grows and feels ready to carry out additional or larger projects, its "track record" (record of experience) can help it to obtain support from international organizations as well as from local and national sources. Expertise in writing a proposal, developing and working within a budget, and reporting results become valuable assets of the group and its individual members.

As success leads to further successes, the activities of many non-governmental organizations contribute to a dynamic society. As more people grow accustomed to taking responsibility for actions to improve their own communities, an ethic of constructive public participation spreads. This example and enthusiasm are contagious, and empower others.

Often the term "organizational capacity" is rather narrowly used to refer only to the long term survival of a variety of medium and large professional organizations. However, equally important for organizational capacity is the societal base of expectations and support for public participation behavior. In many ways, the small projects of a variety of NGOs build such a base, and thus contribute to the civic culture.

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