Funders Discuss the Future of Resilience

By Bill Roper of Slow Communities

One of Irene’s biggest lessons was the power of communication and collaboration to solve big challenges. When neighbors, towns, or agencies worked together to find creative solutions, they moved mountains. It’s also true of funders, who came together in unusual partnerships to move urgent recovery work forward. And that’s why the Resilient Vermont Network focuses on bringing groups together to increase communication and collaborative problem solving – including a group of resilience funders last month.

We brought funders together because, during our extensive meetings with resilience stakeholders, funding emerged as a critical ingredient to success. Vermont’s successes in buyouts after Irene, for example, were possible because of innovative funding collaborations. Yet funders are rarely at the table to hear about progress and help find solutions. That insight prompted the Resilient Vermont Network and High Meadows Fund to invite representatives from federal agencies, Vermont agencies and nonprofits, foundations and private philanthropists to come together for an afternoon to explore resilience successes, challenges and opportunities.

In February, a group of 22 funders shared their work and identified the many opportunities and issues they see in building a resilient future for Vermont. The group focused on exploring how they, as funders, could:

  1. Work across boundaries (organizations, disciplines, regions, and funding priorities).
  2. Build collaborative, long-range funding for resilience work.
  3. Encourage greater proactivity in addressing challenges.
  4. Enhance local capacity in communities.

The conversation covered a broad range of resilience topics including economic resilience, clean water, empowering vulnerable populations, and building local capacity. In fact, several participants observed that the conversation helped them see how much resilience integrates with their work and funding priorities in areas like children and families, social services, or local capacity building – something they had not fully appreciated before the gathering.

That sudden clarity – the ability to see the forest for the trees – is one of the reasons that communication and collaboration are so critical. They are essential tools to putting individual action into a larger context. Because resilience solutions work best if integrated, that larger awareness is a big key to success.

“When philanthropic funders turn their collective attention to a problem, they have the potential to really make a shift in the whole landscape,” notes the Institute for Sustainable Communities VP for Institutional Advancement Barbara McAndrew. “This meeting was an excellent step and I heard terrific ideas and insights.”

For the last year, the Resilient Vermont Network has been convening action groups of resilience leaders to tackle the next big resilience challenges: supporting vulnerable populations, funding buyouts, and protecting river corridors. At each stage of the game, we’ve uncovered unknown (at least to us!) initiatives to address impacts from past disasters and promote proactive planning. We’ve also learned about more challenges and opportunities to improve.

What we’ve discovered over the last year is both a testament to collaboration and a reflection of ongoing needs. For example, when we brought together a group to discuss ways of improving and increasing buyouts of flood-prone properties, we learned about several critical efforts already underway, and also a widespread need for more information about funding sources, prioritization strategies, and ways to integrate efforts.While there’s a lot to learn from the past, the February funders group focused on looking forward and preparing for what we know will come. Vermont can save money, lives and heartache through proactive thinking and action. A host of ideas emerged, from the need to better define and measure resilience, to a need for stronger capacity building and training at the local level, to opportunities for funders to leverage efforts and complete high priority projects together.

Spending money to save money – a common argument for resilience work – can be a tough sell, but all in the room agreed that we must embrace this attitude and approach.

In the months that come, the Network will watch with interest to see if new thinking or actions follow the recent funders’ discussions. And we are always interested in other ideas or work going on in Vermont, so please send us your comments. We can’t do this work without you.

Bill Roper, of Slow Communities, is working with the Institute for Sustainable Communities to build the Resilient Vermont Network.

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