On the shores of Vermont’s Lake Champlain is a 1,400-plus acre farm with a very special mission: to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.

With extensive agricultural operations as well as various ongoing educational partnerships – and even a furniture workshop – Shelburne Farms employs almost one hundred workers (more depending on the season); is served by a committed body of 175 volunteers; hosts more than 140,000 visitors a year, and is supported by 3,600 members in 44 states. Further, its impact on the lives of people is hard to measure – the Farm’s skilled educators have trained hundreds of teachers, who exponentially reach thousands more.

In addition, Shelburne Farms partners with many local organizations such as Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, along with schools and food pantries in Vermont, in order to establish bold environmental education- and school lunch reform. Nationally, the Farm is involved in alliances with the National Park Service, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Farm to School Network, the Farm Based Education Network, among many others. It was this kind of inter-organization collaboration that provided one of the testing grounds for what would later become the national Farm to School program.

Built in 1886, Shelburne Farms has also been partnering with several international institutions since its inception as an educational non-profit in 1972. In the past, it has worked with teachers and environmentalists in Russia and other Eastern- and Central European countries, and it is currently collaborating with educators in Japan and China in various exchange programs for the purpose of mutual learning and advancing the field of environmental education worldwide.

Strength – and challenge – in numbers

Not surprisingly, the Farm’s range of partnerships relies on an ever-growing and diverse network of employees, volunteers, supporters and international affiliates in 19 countries, as well as the surrounding communities. As a result, the increase in the Farm’s spheres of influence began to reveal a growing need for better communication and collaboration amongst all of those involved in its projects – and in the field of education for sustainability at large. “Collaboration is not just a ‘nice’ thing to do,” said Megan Camp, program director and vice president of Shelburne Farms, “it is essential  to the work that we do.”

In order to maintain the long-term effectiveness of the Farm’s work, Shelburne decided to outline better collaboration and collective learning as an organizational priority for 2011-2012.

“We need to accelerate social change, and collaboration is the only way to do it.”

This was how Confluence Collaborative was born.

Contributed to and attended by a multicultural body of participants, Confluence Collaborative aims to harness the collective intelligence of all of the minds behind the Farm’s operations. Its goal is to research best practices for innovation, transformational learning and collaboration, and to integrate these methods into the culture and operations of Shelburne Farms. The resulting findings will not only be immediately put into practice within the Farm’s spheres of influence, but will also be available through its website in the near future.

The Argosy Foundation has partnered with Shelburne Farms with a grant to support the efforts of Confluence Collaborative, in order to advance education for sustainability and facilitate the implementation of robust sustainability strategies locally, nationally and internationally.

In a day and age where mediated, democratic communication channels such as the internet and cell phones have become significant conduits for social change, the deeper levels of human understanding can still only be harnessed through face to face interactions and real-time conversations. More than contributing expertise or experience to a project, true collaborators bring to the table the ability to cede control, welcome input – even controversy – and generally entice multiple viewpoints and collective creativity.

Argosy’s grant allows Shelburne Farms to prioritize collective learning and information sharing through workshops as well as research. Subsequently, it enables the Farm to allocate essential face-to-face, “touch base” time into its crammed schedule for the purpose of strategizing and stimulating the profound social changes of paradigm associated with a future of sustainability.

Not an easy task

Most people agree that collaboration is a positive thing to do. However, very few do it well. In fact, attempts at collaboration often fail due to members’ highly undermining behaviors. To that extent, fostering great collaborative leadership – precisely the type of work Shelburne Farms is now able to focus on – takes more than just talk. It takes managing the divas, surmounting the pontificators, and being humble and confident at the same time.

When personal rather than collective gain is at the forefront of many business models, collaboration often does not come naturally – and some even perceive it as too risky. Additionally, to many non-profit organizations collaboration is a challenge as well, as an aura of competition over resources and suspicion often derails collaborative efforts in that sector.

However, Megan Camp notes that important changes can only be achieved through collective decision-making. She attributes the success of one of the Farm’s more visible partnerships – the Vermont Farm to School program – to effective collaboration between three local non-governmental organizations. Also known as Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), this project stands out as an example of the kind of radical social change that can be accomplished through effective collaboration.

“We need to accelerate social change,” she offers, “and collaboration is the only way to do it.”

To that extent, Camp sees collaboration as a process essential in advancing the organization’s work as well as leveraging impact. She claims that when a group of diverse stakeholders is able to identify what’s most important to them, then the work can be done in a much more effective way – and this type of relationship among stakeholders is what Confluence Collaborative cultivates.

The Argosy Foundation and Shelburne Farms take the need to usher positive cultural shifts very seriously – and ensuring that communities embrace sustainable food practices is an important piece of this puzzle. The Foundation is excited to support Shelburne Farms as it leaves its mark in the history of American environmental movement through information-sharing, humbleness, and an infinite amount of curiosity.