Berkeley nonprofit honored by $750,000 MacArthur Foundation award shares advice

 In Environment, Philanthropy

In the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley next to the UC Berkeley campus, an international environmental and human rights organization headquartered here recently won the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. If you are a public radio listener, then you’re probably familiar with the on-air acknowledgements of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is “committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

The Berkeley-based nonprofit International Rivers recently won a large infusion of cash as one of only 13 nonprofit organizations around the world to win the coveted MacArthur Award this year.

Photo Credit: International Rivers. Staff discussing Movement Building during the 2012 International Rivers staff retreat to explore new ideas and strategize on organizational objectives.

Photo Credit: International Rivers. Staff discussing Movement Building during the 2012 International Rivers staff retreat to explore new ideas and strategize on organizational objectives.

Since 1985 International Rivers has worked to protect rivers threatened by dam projects while also promoting energy and water alternatives. They help partners worldwide to defend rivers and community rights. International Rivers will use their $750,000 award to build operating reserves, strengthen regional offices in Asia, Africa and South America and expand global awareness and support for the movement for healthy rivers and human rights.

The award, announced on February 28, 2013, recognizes exceptional grantees of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that have demonstrated creativity and impact. For these awards, the foundation does not seek or accept nominations. To qualify, organizations must demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness; have reached a critical or strategic point in their development; show strong leadership and stable financial management; have previously received MacArthur support; and engage in work central to one of MacArthur’s core programs.

If you lead a nonprofit, then you are probably wondering how your organization can become a top-performer. So, I contacted Aviva Imhof, the International Rivers Campaigns Director, to ask her for advice she could share with other nonprofits that want to create more impact and be more effective.

What makes International Rivers an exemplary nonprofit?

Aviva Imhof, International Rivers:

The combination of activism, solid research and writing, effective communications and ongoing support for the development of social movements are what makes us such an effective organization.

We pride ourselves on working in partnership with NGOs and affected communities around the globe, and we are very responsive to the needs of our partners and to their concerns. We are well-respected by our partners. We also run effective campaigns while keeping on top of the latest research and policy developments in our world of rivers and dams so that we are recognized as global experts on our issues and are able to provide solid and effective advice to our partners. We also have real impact on the ground – in stopping projects and achieving better compensation for dam-affected communities.

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for other nonprofits?

Aviva Imhof, International Rivers:

  • Listen to your partners and learn from them. Support them in whatever ways you can – they are the strength of the movement, and you will achieve nothing without them. Also learn from other activist groups and social movements – borrow tactics that have been used successfully in other struggles and adapt them to your context. And along these lines, look for partnerships that can further your mutual goals and invest in those partnerships, especially if you have limited resources.

  • Get your facts straight and ensure your communications are professional. Nothing does more damage to your credibility than getting your facts wrong or being hyperbolic all the time. Make sure you communicate effectively; this builds your credibility and sphere of influence.

  • Continuously adapt your strategies to the changing external context. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to change course if necessary.

The MacArthur Foundation produced this video about International Rivers’ work.

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