Why is Collective Impact Important for the Chesapeake Bay?

Photo by: Bob Mical 2010

By: Bruce Hull, David Robertson

Sustainability professionals target some of the most complex and contentious challenges facing humanity, such as securing the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology, economy, and culture.   Many solutions appear just within reach, if only we had the leadership to implement them.  In response to this opportunity, the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) is highlighting work from the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, including projects reporting on the utility of a promising strategy called Collective Impact.

Collective Impact is becoming a preferred adaptive management technique for complex sustainability challenges.  It promotes learning and adapting through partnerships. It helps organizations and people create and see their roles in the problem and its solution, understand which resources they should bring to the table, inspires commitment, and leads to emergent, innovative solutions.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is a classic example of a complex adaptive system that with contentious sustainability challenges and opportunities—and thus was the target of recent projects in the XMNR program. It  is one of the largest, most studied, and best funded watershed management efforts in the world; yet progress towards sustainable development remains elusive.  Solutions are beyond the capacities of any single institution, or even multiple organizations within any sector; and thus require cross-sector collaboration and innovation by multiple organizations working over time and space—Collective Impact.

Detailed case studies of innovative collaborations working in or near the watershed identified key lessons that can improve any project targeting economic, ecological, and cultural conditions of the Bay. Efforts promoting sustainable development have more and more lasting impacts if they:

  • Negotiate shared goals
  • Share measures of progress towards those goals
  • Champion the cause by rallying the troops and attracting attention
  • Secure adequate, reliable funding for the long-term
  • Communicate regularly regarding clear goals, progress, challenges, and needs
  • Adjust goals and methods as lessons are learned and shared through the network
  • Support and are supported by a backbone organization that brokers relationships, serves housekeeping functions, and provides continuity.

Detailed analysis, illustrations, and summary conclusions of these findings are available from case studies of the following innovative efforts.  Additional information about each project is available upon request.

The Envision the James project reaches out across the many residents, businesses, and governing bodies of the entire James River watershed to develop a common vision of a restored James River, and is now using that vision as a guidepost around which to rally the restoration and conservation efforts of the river.

Harris Creek Oyster Restoration Effort operates near the mouth of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It is one of the largest, most comprehensive projects of its type in the U.S. and has the potential to be a model for the other 19 tributaries where restoration efforts are targeted.

The Learning Barge operates a self-sustaining floating classroom that includes a live wetland, composting toilets and rainwater filtration system.

Oyster Recovery Partnership is a large-scale restoration program designed to restore Chesapeake Bay oyster populations by promoting science-based shellfish restoration, aquaculture, and wild fisheries activities that protect and support the environment, economy, and cultural heritage.

Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters is an ambitious, multi-stakeholder effort promoting “green infrastructure” solutions to Philadelphia’s water challenges. The Philadelphia Water Department reached out to numerous stakeholders to lay the foundation, including  businesses, interest groups, citizens, civic associations, neighborhood groups, watershed partnerships and various committees that understand the issues and needs of Philadelphia.  Lessons learned there are interpreted in the context of similar efforts needed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Sustainable Maryland Certified is a voluntary certification program for municipalities in Maryland looking to protect the environment and revitalize their communities.  Participating communities have access to a wide range of resources, such as best practices, case studies, and information on potential grant sources; as they pursue certification using a point system from a list of potential actions.  The actions encompass a broad range of sustainability areas, from watershed stewardship to workplace wellness.