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Coming together for a healthy Willamette

Eric Jones's picture
By Eric Jones - August 08, 2014

Since my daughter turned three in April, this has been the summer of “open swim” at our local public swimming pool. Every evening from 7:30 to 9:00, we walk the four blocks from our house in northeast Portland to the pool and swim for 45 minutes in hopes of achieving some new childhood milestone before heading home. And while I am trying to squeeze in as many of these father-daughter pool days as I possibly can, the WRI team is already thinking about December. Specifically December 11th and 12th, when the third Within Our Reach conference will take place.

Every other summer since 2010, we have spent countless hours drafting and redrafting conference programs, lunch menus and poster session schematics in order to put together a conference that is at once intellectually stimulating, professionally relevant and fun. So why has conference planning become a summer ritual for WRI in even-numbered years?

The core of WRI’s program is to support, through grants, organizations conducting restoration on the mainstem Willamette and in select tributaries. But unlike typical grant programs that solely respond to incoming proposals, we are fortunate as a funding initiative to be able to provide other types of support—or “backbone services”—to our grantees and partners.

What are backbone services? In the foundation world, the concept of backbone services came to the fore through a 2011 article written for the Stanford Social Innovation Review by John Kania and Mark Kramer. In their article Collective Impact, Kania and Kramer (managing directors at the philanthropic consulting group FSG), identified characteristics of successful cooperative efforts aimed at making progress toward resolving tough social issues. They describe “backbone support organizations” that deliver critical services to the cooperating organizations as follows:

Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative. … The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly.

Although WRI does not attempt to provide, or think it should provide, all of the backbone functions laid out in the article, a key goal we identified for ourselves is to increase alignment and communications among the constellation of nonprofit organizations working to improve the health of the Willamette River. And what better way to do this than to bring everyone together for some collective learning, sharing and merriment?

Within Our Reach is unique because it is the one opportunity for all of “Team Willamette” to catch up on the latest science of Willamette restoration, learn about new and existing projects being implemented throughout the basin, and engage in big picture conversations about the future of the river. As conference hosts, we and the conference planning committee strive to build a program that appeals to all Willamette partners – from farmers to restoration practitioners to fish squeezers – and inspires everyone to see how their particular niche contributes to a healthier Willamette River for all.

And so in this summer of 2014, as the memory of the long winter fades a little more with each “open swim” milestone, WRI is planning a conference two seasons away. Hope to see you there!