The Regenerative Principle in Practice for Nonprofit Management

Regenerative thinking is an ideal approach to reorient our perspective from ‘What’s in it for me’ to asking ‘How can we all benefit?’

The Regenerative Principle in Practice for Nonprofit Management
12 mins read

As a collective, nonprofits are the largest movement the world has ever known. And yet, we are divided.

The Common Problems

In the dozens of nonprofits I have led as COO and CFO in the past 35 years, financial stability, growth, and cash flow have been common problems.

However, similar types of solutions have usually resolved these problems: proper budgeting, capture of overhead in grants, cash flow monitoring, proper fundraising systems and procedures, credit lines, and even human resources management.

Apart from a constant need for capital, nonprofits also share a common desire to do something positive for the benefit of humankind and/or the planet. Although I’ve found this to be a prime motivator of many executive directors, this beneficent desire to improve the future also implies a lack inherent in the present. And this feeling of present inadequacy can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression among our nonprofit leaders. After all, nonprofit work is spiritual, no matter what your mission statement is. It is about connecting to people, animals, and nature—and connecting is a spiritual practice.

From Dearth to Abundance

And so part of what we need to do as nonprofit leaders is to reorient our perspective, moving away from what is missing towards what abundance there could be for all.

As environmental nonprofit leader Paul Hawken says, “Evolution arises from the bottom up—so too does hope. The older the forest the more resilient its capacity to regenerate. Humanity is older than the oldest forest. Its capacity to adapt and restore is vastly underestimated. Evolution is optimism in action.”

Let us take that optimism and the passion we have to join together in action.

After all, there are over 10,000,000 nonprofits worldwide. As a collective, nonprofits are the largest movement the world has ever known. That is amazing!

And yet, we are divided. The system of how nonprofits raise money inherently keeps us separate and creates the same financial instability and cash flow problems that we all spend so much time trying to solve over and over again. This separation means that we all have our own wells of resources that we protect and keep close to the vest. After all, the way foundations dole out resources—small amounts to many organizations—only enables us to limp along. This is part of the problem.

Consolidation as Strategy

So, what if foundations stepped up and joined together? What if pooling resources enabled real change?

Because the problem is that we are not working together—not as those who provide resources and certainly not as those who require resources.

The question becomes as simple as it is seemingly unattainable: how do we begin to work together? Or, put another way, what might a nonprofit coalition look like?

Forming a Nonprofit Coalition

This is what we’ve been working on at Kiss the Ground. We are calling it Regenerate America™, a coalition comprised of BIPOC and traditional farming groups as well as non-governmental organizations in the regenerative agriculture movement. With farmers from Washington to Georgia and businesses from shoe to bourbon makers, we’re trying to get as many people involved as possible.

The Regenerative Principle

As a nonprofit, Kiss the Ground works to promote regenerative agriculture as a solution for systemic environmental problems. For us, regenerative is a key word—not just key to soil health but key to our survival. That is, for a farm to be truly regenerative, it surely needs to have healthy living soil (i.e., without toxic chemicals), but it also needs to create a respectful environment for its workers where they can advocate for better conditions and implement their ideas.

The Regenerate America™ coalition is a natural byproduct of thinking regeneratively. Again, regeneration isn’t just about soil health, it is about making communities that create great jobs which will heal the earth and the climate.

Here’s what the regenerative principle looks like in practice:

1. Investing the resources

Our coalition’s goal is to go from the current 70 members to more than 200+ in order to expand our influence and therefore political will with politicians. We are paying some of the smaller NGOs to give them the capacity to help make this happen as well as paying farmers to participate. We are requiring business to pay to play in order to help fund the initiative; with skin in the game, we hope they will become more committed to the initiative.

In nature, regeneration means all parts working together. Our coalition must mirror this collectivity in terms of more equitable distribution of resources—the seed at the root of resource investment, as it were.

2. Looking at the big picture

With Regenerate America™, we are betting on our large coalition creating a grassroots movement to change the paradigm of the traditional degenerative farming system.

But even with this larger picture, we’re still starting small. In particular, Regenerate America™ hopes to revise the USDA Farm Bill to create more education for farmers, more resources, more financing, and more opportunities for BIPOC farmers across the country.

But part of regeneration is also understanding that everything works to promote everything else: a smaller and larger picture symbiosis. That is, these revisions to the USDA Farm Bill will help farming itself to be accomplished more regeneratively. This regeneration contributes to a higher bottom line for farmers, promotes the health and security of the country, and removes carbon from the atmosphere, helping to address the climate crisis.

You can begin to work regeneratively with your nonprofit by examining problems not only from 10,000 feet but from 40,000 feet. Think of who else would benefit from your mission. Are there social justice or environmental organizations, churches or conservation groups—any NGOs outside of your norms—with whom you could collaborate?

For example, if you are working on children’s health issues, organizations within the medical system are a good place to start. But you might also consider possible partners in the food system as well as community and/or parenting organizations.

Essentially, regenerative thinking requires that you think systemically into all the components of the issue not just myopically focus on the one aspect of the issue.

But even after finding these partners, your work is not finished! After you think through who else might be in your network, you must work together to come up with a coalition mission statement that addresses everyone’s needs.

3. Applying it to every level

Regeneration can be defined as making things better. It is more than sustainable, it is more than environmental, it is more than social. It is like an onion: the top layer may be about soil health, but under that is a workers’ rights layer, a packaging layer, a local sourcing layer, a living wage layer, etc. All of these comprise the onion as a whole.

The way business is conducted today represents part of the problem: generating and focusing on one thing—profits—is a problem. Instead, we need to focus on society and on the planet, and there will be enough profits for all.

We need to reorient how we think about nonprofits: the adage it takes a village to raise a child means we can’t change the world alone. If we decide to be inclusive and work together, we must spend time together discussing, ideating, and planning. With this continuous collaboration, we can get so much more accomplished.

4. Stepping up if you have access to funding

Simply put, large nonprofits need to help smaller ones. They need to be less arrogant about being leaders and instead try to be more inclusive. Larger nonprofits can start by helping to write the big grants as well as funding the smaller grants, but they also must listen to the people with boots on the ground—often the smaller nonprofits.

More specifically, large nonprofits can re-grant easily to smaller nonprofits, enlisting those nonprofits that have expertise in a certain area. Larger nonprofits can look to fund BIPOC organizations, thereby empowering and supporting these organizations.

Essentially, larger nonprofits must realize that regeneration means funding is not a zero-sum game. The well is big enough, but larger nonprofits need to help lift up smaller nonprofits to keep everyone from drowning.

5. Supporting regenerative corporate ideas

We also need to help corporations move in the right direction, even by taking baby steps. In the early 2000s, GM came up with the Chevy Volt. The organization I was with then supported the Volt. While we did not support the general corporate structures of GM, we did support their move in the direction of hybrids. This is a form of activism from the fundraising perspective and a way to help business move in the regenerative direction

6. Getting political

As a movement, nonprofits must educate and persuade politicians to understand that regeneration is in their best interest, no matter which side of the aisle they are on.

At Kiss the Ground, we show elected officials and their staff what regeneration looks like on farms in their district while also explaining it will help their constituents. For the purposes of our coalition, we must have political buy-in in order to further our collective mission.

7. Taking risks

For years, we have known there are problems with our environment, health system, and society. What we need to do now is join together to find solutions that work, not just for our own individual silos, but for the whole socio-economic system. This is going to take getting vulnerable, taking risks, being courageous, and doing it anyway even if we are afraid.

Part of taking risks means putting the needs of other organizations above your own. At Kiss the Ground, we share other organizations’ social media posts on our own platforms, understanding that our voice is not always the most important. We also feel that this is a part of being inclusive, and at every turn, we strive for inclusivity. Perhaps most of all, our coalition is courageous because we are thinking bigger, and that is scary!

The Time for Cooperative Regeneration is Now

We can’t do it alone. After all, working in silos has been the problem. We need to re-orient our thinking, changing our perspective from what’s in it for me to asking how can we all benefit?

At the end of the day, we all need to work together to ensure everyone can make a good living and live healthy lives while creating something for future generations.

We don’t have much time left, and there is no Planet B.

About the Author

Richard Wegman is Chief Operating Officer of Kiss the Ground. He brings more than 40 years of leadership and consulting expertise from a diverse background of environmental and social justice nonprofit organizations nationally and in the Los Angeles area. He is Treasurer of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs, an organization that fiscally sponsors more than 300 projects with more than $60,000,000. He is also Vice-Chair and Treasurer of Amazon Watch, an organization that works to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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