How can we Motivate Funders to Say Yes to Community Engagement Projects for Saving Energy?

Community members on the Clean Energy Partnership's 2015-2016 Energy Vision Advisory Committee (EVAC) succeeded in beginning a serious movement to shift the focus of the Partnership energy efficiency program implementation towards the new approach of community engagement. As a result Xcel, Centerpoint and the City of Minneapolis have all pitched in $10,000 each toward the Community Engagement Pilot Project resulting in a total of $30,000 available to staff at least one pilot project and possibly as much as 3. Read this blogpost for some more background.  Xcel, Centerpoint and the City of Minneapolis each made a $10,000 bet that taking this new approach would enable Minneapolis to more effectively meet its Climate Action Plan goals. While this is not a wholesale institutional shift where Xcel is redirecting half of their multi-million dollar marketing budget toward staffing community engagement, it is a courteous first step.


The imperative to fund EVAC's Community Engagement Pilot Project

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the ascendant Community Engagement approach to energy efficiency programming is securing the initial funding that its pilot projects need in order to demonstrate eventual success. It is worthy to mention that the staff on the Partnership's planning team attempted for several months to get additional funding from various foundations and institutions to raise the $30,000 amount they had available for pilot projects. The lack of immediate success (so far) in securing additional funding from foundations opens up a series of deeper questions.

Is this shift to a new approach to energy efficiency programming likely become just another episode in a long string of successful changes for the better that the institutional actors initially greet with caution and skepticism? Could the hesitation funders have over investing in the community engagement pilot projects be nothing more than typical fear of the unfamiliar fueling doubt that it would succeed? In addition, are there some incumbent program implementers working on behalf of the utilities who might lose their market share as the result of a shift toward community engagement programming? 

Whatever the reasons may be, EVAC & the Partnership are planning to help 1-3 Pilot Projects be successful so that we could work past that initial hesitation funders would have toward investing in a fuller-scale community engagement. Having a successful pilot program is a way to demonstrate to the institutional actors how this new approach is viable and worthy of the dollars needed to make it a city-wide reality.  

Engaging a community that is defined as “hard-to-reach” by traditional approaches to energy efficiency programs by its own definition requires active work. Cultivating the 2-way relationships needed for legitimate Community Engagement requires time & effort. That is why it is important to pay whoever is implementing community engagement for the time and effort they put in. As I have learned from a failed past experience in trying to launch neighborhood energy teams, it is the type of work has a way of not getting done if it is all put onto the backs of volunteers.

Let's note that the Community Engagement Pilot Project is different than the Lake Street Energy Challenge branch of Xcel Energy's Partners in Energy program where Xcel's hired staff are primarily an informational resource for community members who are expected to do community engagement work as volunteers. The Lake Street Energy Challenge had some great volunteer energy in the arena of Community Solar but it fell short in the rest of its 2015 goals which were more energy efficiency related.

A successful version of the Lake Street Energy Challenge would requires some institutional actor who has the capability to fund the community engagement work to say “yes!” rather than hesitate.

It is easy to make the case that Community Engagement can't be short-shifted on initial funding. However, we also need to make a case that the dollars invested into community engagement will be efficient and effective. 

 How can we make a strong case that the dollars invested into community engagement will be efficient and effective?  

Those within organizations unaccustomed to the community engagement approach may conflate community engagement with outreach and thereby presume that 'community engagement' means having one designated hired staff person obligated to keep track of more relationships than they personal capacity to maintain. They might have a first impression of Community Engagement as an expensive & time-consuming burden because each individual has only a limited capacity to keep track of all the 2-way relations they engage in without reaching a state of burnout. However, when you have a coalition of multiple people and organizations collaboratively sharing the work load, then community engagement builds upon remarkable synergies rather than collapses under its own weight. 

Energy Efficiency Groups such as Center for Energy and Environment have looked into a field of study called Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) in order to leverage the strength of social capital that already exists within communities. Community Engagement would be doing a local stakeholder assessment of need in order to guide specific content for CBSM. If used in a community engagement setting, CBSM can harness social ties & bonds of trust within community groups to do much of the work in boosting interest & follow through in energy efficiency so that additional paid staff do not have to. Tapping into that already existing social capital will offset the need for financial capital to pay additional program implementers once community engagement gains momentum. Community engagement it is not about ‘rescuing’ a community in a patronizing manner. It is about providing a community with agency. 

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