The Evolution of the Canadian Freshwater Alliance

For nearly ten years, the Canadian Freshwater Alliance has been supporting the water community and working for a future where all waters in Canada are in good health. How we do this work has shifted over time. We wanted to write this post to communicate clearly to the water community what has shifted and why. 

When we first launched onto the ENGO scene back in 2012, our core mandate was to support and build capacity of smaller, community-based environmental organizations to more effectively engage community members and drive change on local freshwater issues. We did this work primarily by offering online and in-person training and coaching to these groups on topics like storytelling, engagement organizing, volunteer recruitment, strategic planning, etc. 

Over the years CFA’s mandate has shifted from being primarily focussed on helping smaller organizations build capacity to drive change, to being leaders in driving change on key issues ourselves. This evolution took place slowly over the years; for a while we had a hybrid model where we did both capacity-building and campaign leadership. However, today, we are mostly focussed on campaign leadership. It has come to our attention that we have not communicated this shift explicitly to our community, and that groups that were more familiar with our initial mandate may be unclear as to how or why we have changed focus over the years. We wanted to take this opportunity to be clear about this and why we’ve evolved from our old “capacity-building” model to our new “advocacy and engagement leadership” model. 

There are three main reasons for this shift: 

  1. There were large leadership gaps in organizations that had the resources, skills, and capacity to make and advocate for change at the regional and national levels when it came to freshwater issues. The Canadian Freshwater Alliance stepped into that space: in British Columbia, we became a leader in advocating for legislative and policy reform; in the Lake Erie watershed, we filled a gap by pushing for solutions to toxic and harmful algae; and at the federal level, we’ve stepped up to become leaders in advocating on different legislative and policy reform issues, like the Canadian Navigable Waters Act and the Canada Water Agency. We have also filled other advocacy and engagement roles as the opportunity and need have arisen. 
  2. We are more effective as a freshwater community when we are working on shared goals. Although many groups enjoyed our training and coaching programs, we have found that change-making is much more effective when we are working with groups toward a specific goal—i.e. collaborating with groups on specific projects or campaigns. When we were training and coaching groups, afterward they went back to working on their own individual campaigns or projects but some struggled to put their learnings into practice in the context they operated. What’s more, it can be hard to make change on an issue when you are one of the only actors pushing for change in that space. For that reason, we have moved toward bringing in a diversity of groups—be they environmental organizations, members of the public, businesses, Indigenous and government leaders—to work on specific change-making projects. We have found that, by using this more explicitly collaborative approach, we have a larger and more lasting impact.
  3. Funding opportunities are overwhelmingly regionally specific. As a non-profit initiative, we—like pretty much all non-profits—are dependent on foundations and philanthropic giving to achieve our goals. Over 90% of our funding comes from foundations, and, particularly in the environmental world, these funders by and large offer opportunities that are specific to certain regions or watersheds. By delivering regionally-focused freshwater campaigns and projects we have been able to stay financially sustainable while also helping to drive needed change on issues that were otherwise not being adequately addressed. Although we are very proud of regional campaigns, this funding landscape does make it more difficult for us to raise the funds needed to focus on freshwater work at the national level. 

Although the way that we work with organizations has evolved over the years, we are still very committed to working in collaboration with other groups.  Instead of that work coming through training and coaching, it now happens primarily by collaborating on campaigns and public engagement activities. We do still occasionally offer training and support to environmental organizations, but we are more strategic about it: we want to ensure the training is supporting organizations to meet shared goals. Since moving to this model, we’ve had some great successes: from securing an investment of $27 million dollars in stimulus funding to watersheds in BC, to raising awareness and funds through the Lake Erie Challenge, to getting a $200M federal commitment to natural infrastructure, thanks to our shared advocacy efforts. We also work with other freshwater organizations on shared goals and priorities through the Our Living Waters Network. 

In addition to environmental organizations, we also have expanded our reach to work with businesses, Indigenous organizations, governments and members of the public. We know that can’t bring about the change that needs to happen alone. Rather, we firmly believe that the more people who are engaged—aware, excited and active—in defending freshwater, the more successful we will be at creating change to secure healthy waters for all! 

If you have any questions about this shift or CFA’s goals and priorities in general, don’t hesitate to reach out!