[4 Minute read]

Shared Value/Collective Impact & Risk Governance Program Development Case:
The Dearborn Sustainability Coalition

What can cross-sector sustainability look like in action?
How might a community take tangible ownership of a complex and ambiguous concept like “sustainability?”

“Dearborn achieved Gold status for exemplary action in a variety of categories, including the Sustainable Community Roundtable, which engages institutional, not-for-profit, corporate, academic, governmental, and community leaders in comprehensive sustainability efforts throughout the Dearborn area.”

Michigan Municipal League’s 2012 press release on the
“Michigan Green Communities Challenge”
Professor William Seacrest, Professor from Henry Ford Community College, representing his breakout group’s discussion at the interfaith Earth, Ethics & Religion Sustainability Roundtable


This case examines how nuanced but ambiguous concepts, like sustainability in 2009, can be used as a unifying framework to solve a “tragedy of the commons” problem for collective impact (public sector-led shared value creation), and stakeholder engagement. In particular, using collaborative emergent strategy, “fuzzy concepts“, and “Risk Governance” across sectors and stakeholders to resolve chronic challenges throughout Southeast Michigan through the Dearborn Sustainability Coalition’s formation.

Southeast Michigan hosts numerous non-profit organizations, academic institutions, municipalities, and private businesses in close proximity to one another. All frequently compete with one another for common resources (time, funding, participation).

Meanwhile, students, scholars, and residents remain eager to contribute efforts and expertise toward greater purposeful cause, but were often met with rudimentary low-skill service opportunities detached from clear impact, or operated in silos due to perceived ideological differences.


Fragmented efforts and competition for common resources indicate a need to utilize complex systems thinking approaches such as risk governance to navigate complex systems and “wicked problems” to cohere understanding and efforts. Sustainability is a “fuzzy concept” and wicked problem which requires risk governance when working with diverse stakeholders.

It carries nuanced meaning among scholars and industry practitioners, has different meaning among the public, and differing but valid solutions to its challenges may arise depending on context. We used its comprehensive and aspirational characteristics as a unifying framework to cohere and develop understanding and assets as a cohesive community.

Intentionally framed collaboration and participatory dialogues between organizations and residents brought the public and multiple sectors to common understanding. Pairing educational, outdoor, and other engaging events with facilitated strategic dialogues cultivated trust, informed network development, a deeper sense of community, and shared purpose that overcame potential differences in age, religion, political identity, and industry sector.

The Coalition’s programming and strategic partnerships yielded the following outcomes and impacts:

  • Hailed as exemplary best practice exemplary best practice statewide for our Sustainability Round Table dialogues by the Michigan Municipal League
  • Assisted in securing Federal funding for city of Dearborn’s economic development, private funding for educational festivals, and raised public funds to pilot a municipal LED lamp replacement project
  • Saved thousands of dollars in costs through shared facilities and volunteer efforts
  • Garnered over 12 media appearances within 2 years
  • Developed a mailing list of over 740 partners and community members
  • Contributed and advised numerous city, state, and federal master plans and public forums
  • Raised awareness for greenhouse gas reductions and Mayor of Dearborn agreed to sign the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement

Lessons below are selected as the most novel and salient lessons learned from the perspective of organizational learning, systems thinking, and collective strategy.

  • Facilitated Fuzzy Concepts and “Wicked Problems” can create emancipating structures
    In 2009, sustainability was a relatively new word for the public. When appropriately framed and facilitated, “fuzzy concepts” and “wicked problems” can be navigated with success using risk governance principles and are applicable to creating other purpose-driven initiatives. The Dearborn Sustainability Coalition case further validated these concepts.

    Two early partner organizations from the Dearborn Sustainability Coalition–the University of Michigan-Dearborn Student Environmental Association (SEA) and Sierra Club–featured in a lighthearted political cartoon by Daniel Saad of the Dearborn Press and Guide. A resident proudly shared his laminated clipping with us a year after its publication.
  • Cohere to catalyze community wealth
    This approach required a different kind of wealth to initiate: existing community relationships. Organizations already present and representing existing community/industry groups formed the core of the coalition and deeply shaped its capacity for coordinated outreach and collaboration. For these groups, the coalition and processes we used were created with intent to become an emancipating structure. Where leadership and ability didn’t already exist, we were less prepared to take responsive action.
    In specific, we were an early-stage coalition working with other organizations that were less suited to reacting to imminent public health crises for communities. This made the coalition a greater benefit to more privileged organizations and institutions as our ability to effectively mobilize responses was limited by our existing capacity for leadership and action.
  • Scale Out to ensure inclusion
    Conversations and events with 40, 60, or even hundreds of participants yielded significant action and outcomes. The dialogues cultivated a deep sense of emotional and intellectual solidarity–for those who were able to attend an event in full or several events in the series. Yet the process required intimate trust building that was impractical for reaching a city of 100,000 people. Even with our mailing list of 740 people and organizations, the only way for people who missed the in-person events to “catch up” with the same sense of consensus and in-person shared understanding required education and voluntary consensus in a community context.
  • Characterize, rather than define success for inclusive leadership
    The “triple bottom line” domains–society, economy, and environment–provided a clear, comprehensive, measureable and inclusive framework that allowed stakeholders to intuitively connect their efforts toward greater purpose. Our strategic partners and coalition members were organizations and individuals who exemplified each tenet of sustainability–their core operations and missions automatically ensured our shared vision would manifest. Comprehensive sustainability–where society, economy, and environment mutually interrelate—becomes intuitive when people can engage compelling examples of the concept in action. A rain garden and community urban farm tour paired with strategic storytelling helped demonstrate an abstract and complex concept with tangible results that people can engage and remember. Residents and local organizations would continue to inquire about our events several years after we deactivated the coalition.

Further lessons learned in entrepreneurship, change management, and sustainability may be found in the full report (in working draft) which includes a more detailed analysis of the initiative.

(C) Ian D. Tran 2015 all rights reserved.

With thanks to
Mary Ann Baeir (DSC), Jennie Dunn (LWV), Mary Jo Durivage (LWV),
Sally Humadi (former Fordson High School Environmental Club),
Michelle Martinez (former Sierra Club), Shannon Morrow (DSC),
the Student Environmental Association,
and everyone who chose to make the endeavor a part of their lives and community.


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