Transformation: The Story of Creating EBW
12 Key Lessons
In the fall of 2011, Evergreen Brick Works celebrated its first-year anniversary. We continue to make progress, involving more people from various walks of life, hosting international sustainability forums, launching new activities that speak to the site’s potential to serve as a living laboratory for green cities, and our business plan is bearing fruit. The fundraising challenges continue, and likely always will.
Herewith, a distillation of some of the key lessons learned as we enter the second decade of Evergreen Brick Works.
1. Passion and vision
Evergreen staff were committed to the idea of transforming an abandoned industrial site into Evergreen Brick Works, but the real magic was that we had discovered a galvanizing idea that drew more supporters than naysayers. We followed the natural momentum of the idea throughout the entire project. The idea itself gave us energy, attracted key collaborators and inspired our community. The idea powered the project.
Know your mission. Surround yourself with people who will keep reminding you of it through thick and thin. Understand the sense of calling that motivates staff and volunteers alike. At each major stage of the project’s development, we asked how certain decisions would support or take us off mission. Sometimes that meant saying no to good ideas and opportunities. We dealt with a lot of professionals who had a name and a stake in the project too.
The balance between flexing to fit into the real world and to stay true to the organization’s mission was a tough act. “We did it by both very emergent and adaptable behaviour but at the same time, some very tight and tough management of what was going to happen,” says Cameron Charlebois.
3. Trust your gut and push for what you believe in
It took Evergreen some time to get our confidence at the beginning. We had to listen to a lot of opinions and advice. We were humbled by how much we didn’t know. But we knew that we had to steer the course.
“One of the good roles that the Evergreen folk play is that they have strong opinions and they don’t give up,” says David House. “They cause things to happen that the commercial world would rule out and overlook.”
4. Walk the talk
We were creating a physical space that would become the embodiment of Evergreen’s mission. This meant the project itself had to reframe the problem of ecological destruction and tackle social and environmental challenges along the way. We needed to come up with new ways of supporting a sustainable future, including fostering the collaborations needed to achieve this future.
Our values were embedded in all aspects of the project—from art in architecture to LEED Platinum certification to creating flexible spaces to accommodate future use. This authentic approach was the key to rallying supporters, testing ideas and transforming them into reality.
5. Share leadership
Evergreen Brick Works was led by the executive director with the active engagement of our Board and senior advisors, who helped us navigate a path we hadn’t been down before. Without help from experts, we would have been lost. Their visionary leadership and the strong support of the capital cabinet helped shape the idea and nurture the many relationships that were necessary to make it happen.
True leadership also means letting others participate in meaningful ways and this shared leadership requires self-confidence and self-awareness, and an understanding of individual strengths. Be conscious of your context, who you are working with and knowing which pieces you can let go. The bigger the project becomes, the more sharing of responsibilities and decision-making will be necessary.
6. Organizational culture
Evergreen’s culture supported creativity, idea generation and entrepreneurialism, which was exactly what we needed for a project like this. Any organization taking on a big, transformative project must approach ideas by asking “yes, but how?” A little naivety and hubris doesn’t hurt either. If someone had told us at the outset that it would take eight years and cost over $55 million, we would have doubted our capacity to stay in the game that long, and likely have been scared away by the magnitude of the task and budget.
Sometimes not really knowing where you’re going isn’t such a bad thing. A lack of resources made us even more creative, but we had to adopt it as our ethos and push it hard into every aspect of the project.
7. Listen—a lot—particularly when in the formative stage
We took our plans for Evergreen Brick Works to numerous parties—past and potential donors, those with a history with the site, creative thinkers—and each helped shape our idea, make it better, and bring it into greater focus. These people will also become your allies, and you will rely on them during the process.
That said, use common sense and a critical mind. Not every idea thrown your way will be the right one for your organization. Don’t be afraid to say no.
8. Know when to pause and when to act
This is a fine art that takes a combination of instinct and the willingness to fail. But it often seems that simply trying is what sets you apart. “Not very many people have visions,” says Blakes lawyer Kim Harle. “Of those who do, not very many try to implement them.” At a certain point, you just have to chase your idea down and see what happens. Use analysis to inform your decisions, but beware the trap of “analysis paralysis.”
9. Be open to emerging ideas
Evergreen Brick Works was born during a period of organizational change and turbulence. We were transitioning into something much bigger and very different, and our staff, partners and volunteers were feeling the shift and had strong opinions about it. Innovation often happens on the margins. During times of change, you have to be open to new ideas—more open than you may otherwise naturally be.
10. Perseverance and the point of no return
Once you’ve committed your organization to a project of the magnitude of Evergreen Brick Works, you’re in. At times, the risks of getting out outweigh the challenges of staying the course. We reached moments when it felt like we were hitting walls and starting to seriously reconsider whether the project was feasible after all.
Optimism, a tolerance for risk and a basic hunger to make the project succeed got us to the finish line. If you have these conditions, perseverance and never giving up will see you through dark days.
11. Establish a process but be nimble and responsive
We required multiple advisors and consultants to transform Evergreen Brick Works through all its stages—from initial concept to to the detailed master plan, and from construction drawings to the ultimate build-out. Any large project will require precision, persistence and acumen. Identifying and celebrating key milestones helped turn an overwhelming project into more manageable pieces.
Some of these milestones were anticipated and helped guide the process. Other milestones or turn-key moments surprised us, such as how quickly we completed the first major step in fundraising. Be conscious of those moments that may make you adapt your course.
12. And always, always, protect the good
Some change we sought, some was thrust upon us as a condition of our organizational growth. We have grown professionally through the process, but the core skills and attributes of Evergreen remain intact: collaboration, risk-taking, creativity, knowing when to ask for help, developing organizational leaders. With this foundation, learning new skills associated with running Evergreen Brick Works and continuing to bring the project to scale are well within our reach.
If you or your organization can see yourself in any of these conditions, then pushing ahead with a bold, world-changing idea may just be in the cards for you.