Several years ago, Laura Pérez-Arce, co-director of the Earth Island project Viva Sierra Gorda, which works to promote conservation and economic development in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda region, decided to start a separate nonprofit focused on carbon credits. It was only then, as she began to independently navigate the complexities of IRS approval and nonprofit administration, that Pérez-Arce realized the true value of Earth Island Institute’s Project Support team, which had been providing Viva Sierra Gorda organizational support since 2004.
photo Susan Kamprath
“I’ve come to value more and more the services that Earth Island provides,” she says. “After having finally gotten [IRS approval], I realized how valuable it is to have the insights, and experience, and direct administrative support that comes with Earth Island Institute projects.”
The kind of support Earth Island Institute offers fledgling, and even established, environmental groups may sometimes float under the radar for those who haven’t previously run a nonprofit. Indeed, at first glance, it can be difficult to figure out exactly how Earth Island Institute works. Is it one nonprofit organization? Is it a compilation of dozens of nonprofits? Or an incubator for new projects?
The answer is: All of the above, and more. Earth Island Institute provides fiscal sponsorship for burgeoning organizations working on a wide range of environmental issues, from climate change, to environmental education, to wildlife conservation. By becoming a part of Earth Island, these organizations – known as “projects” within the Earth Island community – gain the benefit of the Institute’s 501(c)3 status, the efficiencies of shared business operations, and a supportive peer community. The projects receive assistance with certain legal and administrative elements of their work, while maintaining the independence to shape and run their own programs.
Earth Island Institute is always on the lookout for new and innovative environmental projects. If you have a project idea or know of a great effort that might like to link up with us, go to www.earthisland.org/index.php/support to learn more.
At the core of this model lies the Institute’s Project Support team, which works with all Earth Island projects from the get-go. Team members review project applications when they first come in, interview applicants to get a better sense of project proposals, and make recommendations to the Earth Island Board of Directors regarding which programs are a good fit for the Institute. That is just the beginning: Once a project becomes part of the Earth Island family, Project Support acts as their primary point of contact at the Institute.
The team includes professionals with a wide range of experience in nonprofit management, organizational development, and fundraising. It provides assistance in three key areas: administration and finance, capacity building, and peer support, says Director of Project Support Susan Kamprath.
Administrative support includes a number of services, such as help with managing finances, filing taxes, and navigating human resource issues. This kind of support takes a weight off individual projects’ shoulders, saving staff time and frustration. It allows projects to focus on their core goal of saving our environment, which can be a lot more difficult to accomplish if you are bogged down by paperwork.
“It is like success through 1,000 helping hands,” says Scott Wolland, executive director of Bay Area Wilderness Training, an Earth Island project that creates opportunities for San Francisco Bay Area youth to experience wilderness. “[Project Support team] gives extra backend assistance to an under-resourced project so we can focus on achieving our mission,” he says.
Project Support also works to build projects’ capacity. It does this by organizing workshops and trainings on topics like program management, grant proposal writing, and foundation research, and offering technical assistance to project directors and staff. Informally, Project Support program associates also do a lot of coaching. “People [who] come to us are expert in a particular field, but aren’t necessarily expert in managing an organization, or fundraising, or other aspects of running a nonprofit,” Kamprath says.
Another key role Project Support plays is that of connector, encouraging community-building and peer support among the 60-plus Earth Island projects. Project Support staff organize webinars and directors’ calls to get different projects talking to each other, and host a project directors’ summit every two years, which, as Kamprath says, “gives people an opportunity to really explore the things they have in common [and figure out] what they can learn from each other.”
Project directors appreciate this benefit of EII membership. “For me, it’s a vital resource to have the interaction of what’s happening with each one of the projects, says Pérez-Arce. “At Viva Sierra Gorda, we really try to act as a catalyst for both local partners here in Mexico as well as for creating a greater change through lessons learned here… so that network is key.”
Gary Cook, director of Baikal Watch, which works to protect biologically rich areas within the Lake Baikal watershed in Russia, agrees. “I think in many ways, because we have so many projects now, there are a number of potential as well as existing overlaps amongst the projects and the work we are doing,” he says. “And many times, the best support has helped us make the connections between our projects.… We’re still an organization as a whole, and not just a bunch of disparate single projects that are out there on our own.”
Since it was founded in 1982, Earth Island and the Project Support team has nurtured well over 200 grassroots projects working on a diverse range of environmental issues. Many of these, such as Rainforest Action Network, International Rivers Network, and Energy Action Coalition, have branched out and grown into successful, independent nonprofits.
The benefits provided by the Project Support team inevitably reach beyond administration, capacity building, and peer support. In essence the team serves as the hub of the Earth Island wheel, connecting the Institute to its many projects, and providing them with the resources they need to thrive.
“When I walk into the [Earth Island] office, even if I’m having a kind of hectic day, there is something very grounding and soothing about the presence of the staff there,” says Dana Frasz, founder and director of Food Shift, an Earth Island project that works to develop long-term sustainable solutions to reduce food waste. “I think that is huge. For me, feeling welcome every time I step into that office, and feeling like everyone genuinely cares about me as a person and also [as] a project is just heartwarming. It is one reason I’m there and want to be there.”
The Project Support team, in turn, appreciates the opportunity to work with inspiring environmental leaders and innovators. “In a world that is faced with lots of challenges, we are privileged to spend our time working with people who are trying to make it better,” Kamprath says. “That is another piece of a somewhat unstated value of the organization, which is that there isn’t one path forward. It is going to take a lot of people and a lot of approaches, and this organization can be a home for a lot of diverse approaches.”
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