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Collective Impact: A Case Study of the Chester River Association

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By Thomas (T.J.) Franklin, Zach Hoffman, Edward Pachico, Marlaine Smith and Mark Wieder

This past summer, Starlite Sustainable Solutions (SSS), a student team of the Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, worked on a project that focused on how collective impact can be instrumental in making progress on complex social and environmental issues.

This particular learning experience built on previous months of learning sustainability theories and practices, where SSS team members engaged with change agents and leaders in their respective sustainability fields. While future leaders in the XMNR program learn about a variety of local and international sustainability topics throughout the course, the students focused on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (CBW) during the 2014 summer session, specifically water quality and the promotion of change within such a complex system.

Decades of overfishing (including crab and oysters), urban and rural development, farming, and pollution are just a few examples of problems that exist within the CBW. As they accumulated, these problems contributed to the decline in water quality during the 20th century, and continue to be problematic today.  This decline has been witnessed by many: not only the watermen that depend on the CBW for their livelihood, but also everyday citizens who use the Chesapeake Bay for commercial and recreational use.

Farmers (agriculture, dairy, beef and poultry) in particular are the largest contributors of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to the CBW. On the flip side, farmers have been pivotal to a thriving Mid-Atlantic society by advancing the regional economy and ensuring that adequate amounts of good quality food are available. Overall, there are many fingers to point: Farmers are not the only contributing actors in the CBW’s water quality problems and should not be the brunt of all the blame.

SSS felt that this complex problem - the relationship between farmers and pollution in the CBW - could benefit from Collective Impact in that it would help to bring the various stakeholders (CBF, EPA, watermen, farmers, etc.)  into alignment around this issue and promote change within the region. Through their research, SSS discovered that there already exists at least one change agent in the CBW who is successfully applying collective impact principles to tackle nonpoint source (NPS) pollution -- the Chester River Association (CRA).

CRA is a grassroots effort within a sub-watershed of the CBW whose efforts closely align with the principles of collective impact. Founded in 1986, CRA is an advocate for a clean, healthy and productive Chester River -- a waterway dividing the Kent and Queen Anne’s counties of Maryland on the eastern shore and draining into the Chesapeake Bay. The association strives to promote stewardship of the Chester River, in part, by developing partnerships at the town, county and state level, and leveraging the knowledge, skills and resources of their partners to assist in meeting agreed upon, long-term goals for river water quality (see Chester Testers). The CRA also works with farmers to implement best management practices and with local schools to improve water quality and wildlife habitat, all the while showing younger generations of local citizens the path to improving the Chester River.

NPS pollution is a serious problem in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and one that is difficult to ascribe responsibility to. Addressing this problem in a realistic way requires taking a broader view of the problem, avoiding the assignment of blame and engaging all actors. Also key to addressing a problem as multifaceted as NPS pollution is bringing to bear a range of programs, tools and expertise that allow individuals or organizations to approach the problem in a comprehensive, holistic way. The CRA is doing just that. Their programs are successful because the organization has done an excellent job employing fundamental elements of collective impact like developing a common agenda and shared vision for success with their partners; devising and agreeing upon shared measurement systems for their programs; maintaining continuous communication with both partners and supporters; and most of all, utilizing the staff and resources of CRA to create an operational backbone that can support the weight of the partnership through good times and bad.

For more information on the collective impact process and insight into the CRA programs, including best practices, please see the team’s full report.

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This blog series, written by graduate students and faculty at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), focuses on lessons learned about the leadership and innovation strategies that business, government, and civil society stakeholders are using to influence important environmental and natural resource systems, including water, food, climate, energy, and biodiversity.

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