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By Mike Morrice, Executive Director of Sustainability CoLab

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A view from Wasan Island, Muskoka Lakes, Ontario

How’s this for a fun question: let’s say you could put 20 of Canada’s most influential sustainability leaders on a remote island for three days. Who would you pick? And what could come of it?

Staff at four family foundations – McConnell, Breuninger, BMW and Ivey – started asking this question about a year ago. And unlike you or me, they had the resources to make it happen.

And so, this is the genesis of why in late August I found myself on Wasan Island – privately owned and operated by the Breuninger Foundation, used exclusively for groups with a social change mandate, and explicitly invite-only – surrounded by a mix of leaders from major Canadian corporations, some of our most well respected NGOs and most influential funders.

And in case we needed a reminder of the urgency of this retreat, one invitee – Todd Scaletta, Director at Chartered Professional Accountants Canada – was unable to join, stuck in Winnipeg because of flooding.

A team of 3 facilitators & 6 core staff ensured all invitees were well-fed, given space for challenging conversation, and had a comfortable place to sleep. As the lead staff member at Breuninger put it, their intention was to provide the conditions needed for us to have powerful, inspired conversation – even in the “off hours”. A ping-pong table, canoes, kayaks, the fullness of the 6.6 acre island – all available to us throughout our time at Wasan.

In one sense, it felt a bit like camp, where each ‘camper” brought with them significant and unique experience and influence in the realm of sustainability. One metric for this: just four out of the six corporate & family foundations invitees distributed over $73 million to sustainability projects across Canada in 2014.

It sunk in for me as we toured the island on Monday afternoon. Though I’d read the invite list beforehand, it was so much more powerful seeing the group together in-person. Here stood so many keynote speakers and panelists from events across the CoLab Network over the past 5+ years: the likes of Val Chort, Toby Heaps, Andrea Moffatt, and Karen Clarke-Whistler. And instead of engaging in a 45 minute conversation in front of a room of people, media present – instead we now had the opportunity to dig in for several days, off-the-record.

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And it wasn’t all a breeze, by any stretch. By the beginning of the second day in fact, many invitees began to openly question the purpose of the retreat itself.

Yes, we’re interested in strengthening relationships. Building trust across sectors. Seeking a deeper understanding of one another’s challenges. But many, our facilitators included, were interested in shorter-term, tangible outcomes. In this sense, retreats like this do feel like what I get the sense a Conference of the Parties  is like, where there’s a last-minute rush to end up with some tangible shared outputs, and commitments to advance them. Last summer in fact, at a similar-style retreat, a number of us came up with what we hoped would be the “Wakefield Accord” – an attempt to cement key commitments made over those few days together.

Though in these settings, I’m less concerned with what the group builds in our short time together, and more interested in the emergent conversations generated.

Coming out of one of the first sessions on Monday for example, I had a small conversation with Delyse Sylvester from The Natural Step. We wondered aloud why so many in the environmental movement have been unable to make it easier for Canadians to make the connection between extreme weather events like the forest fires in BC, and the climate crisis. Within a minute or so, Elizabeth Sheehan (Climate Smart Business), Mike Wilson (Sustainable Prosperity), Val Chort (RBC) and Willa Black (Cisco) had joined the conversation. And I thought: How absurdly difficult would it have been to get this group on a conference call to talk about engaging Canadians in climate change? Delyse has been actively pushing to create a coordinated communications effort on this for some time now; conversations like this are the fuel she needs to make it happen.

And these conversations continued. Some structured, some emergent. Some bilateral, some large group. Some with flip-chart paper, some over an impassioned game of table-tennis.

By Tuesday afternoon, we settled on breaking into two groups – NGOs in one, corporates & funders in another – to co-create a question for the other to give insight on. The corporates asked the NGOs how we can engage each other in more meaningful ways from the traditional sponsorship-type models, and the NGOs asked the corporates what we can do to enable Canadians to more often act on their values. These two questions formed the basis for the outcomes of the whole retreat.

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By the end of the last day, commitments were made and streams of action were put forward for a communications campaign and a set of activities to empower more strategic partnerships between NGOs, corporates and funders.

I also came away with a couple key insights from the conversations we had:

  1. That funders – both corporate & family foundations – are more interested than ever in co-funding larger projects that require deeper collaboration between all participants. One recent example being Canada’s EcoFiscal Commission
  2. That there’s an interest from all parties – corporate leaders, foundations and NGOs – to understand one another’s untapped assets, evolve away from traditional sponsorship models, and uncover deeper shared value in collaboration

And so, was it worth it? Did the 20 of us live up to our shared potential over these three days? Well, we didn’t directly ‘solve’ any particular environmental issue. And we didn’t create a ground-breaking set of new commitments. So the dreamer in me would tend towards saying, no – we didn’t do as much as could have been achieved by some of Canada’s most influential people in the sustainability movement.

But the pragmatist in me thinks just the opposite: we did more than solve one particular challenge.

Deep transformations take deep collaborations.

They take new ways of thinking about old problems. And all this requires more trust, more cohesiveness and more communication. Links were formed where there once were none. Seeds have been planted. And I expect one year from now, if an analysis were done on the collaborations formed between NGOs, funders and corporations – you’d find that the organizations represented on Wasan Island will be working together more often and more meaningfully, achieving deeper impact that they would have been able to pursue individually.

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