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by Ali Mackisack

Wouldn’t it be great if someone handed over a million dollars to go towards your biodiversity project or catchment community plans? It sounds like a dream come true doesn’t it? Think of all the things you could finally get done!

Yet, while a large injection of cash into a community project is a blessing, it can also have a massive impact on the way your group operates, how it’s structured, what it needs to monitor and report on, and on the mixture of skills needed within the group.

The Wainuioru Community River Care Group (WCRCG) found itself dealing with these issues in 2020, when they successfully applied for funding from the 1 Billion Trees and the Jobs for Nature funds. While the very active, well-organised and multi-skilled group were stoked with the success of their application, they also found themselves on a really challenging learning journey.

The things they needed to consider – and the challenges and supports they encountered, could be useful for other groups who are thinking about seeking funding. In this spirit, the group is sharing their story with the WaiP2K Alliance so that other community groups can benefit from their experiences.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) have also engaged Kirsty McCarthy – who assisted the river care group get the wheels rolling – to create a Catchment Group Resource Pack which will be available to all new catchment groups.

The Wainuioru Community River Care Group (WCRCG)

The Wainuioru Community River Care Group (WCRCG) was established in 2017 after a community meeting. At that meeting, it became clear that the community wanted to monitor, protect and improve water quality in the catchment, and prepare for imminent water regulations. Many of these regulations were looking to be introduced based on modelled data rather than actual data. So the group wanted to establish a water monitoring program to investigate the state of the water quality in the catchment and to see if those regulations were necessary. They also wanted to address problems such as the spread of crack willows, flooding and sediment.

From its early days, the group has been supported by Beef and Lamb NZ, GWRC and the Department of Conservation (DoC). Beef and Lamb NZ provided help from a freshwater scientist and water-testing (SHMAK) kits. Joint funding from Beef and Lamb NZ and the Ministry for the Environment enabled the group to have a catchment plan drawn up. A staff member from GWRC and another from DoC have attended most of the group’s meetings, provided information and advice, and also assisted in applying for the funding.

The river care group does regular water testing and is developing and implementing plans for improving and restoring water quality in the Wainuioru River. It’s committed to fostering education and a community spirit in the catchment along the way. Their plans include fencing off waterways, removing some weed plants and planting beneficial ones, and establishing and maintaining a plant nursery in collaboration with the local school.

The funding granted was to enable the group to create a Restoration Plan and an Implementation Plan, then put in place the people, actions and mechanisms to manifest these.

Challenge and Supports

“I don’t think we’d want to do this all over again, even though we’ve learned a few shortcuts as we’ve gone along. It’s been a hell of a lot of work and we’ve had to learn everything along the way.”

This is the frank assessment of the process by WCRCG chairperson, Richard Johns. A full-time farmer with a busy family, he’s found the move from chairing a small incorporated society that did water testing four times a year, to chairing a group that’s responsible for managing over 2 million dollars worth of funding, to be a big challenge.

“I quite enjoy taking on a challenge,” Richard says, “and we had done all the basic groundwork to be in a position to apply for funding. To get the funding, you need to have a bank account. To get a bank account, you need to be an entity. We set ourselves up as an Incorporated Society and to do that you have to have a hierarchical structure with a Chairperson, a Secretary and various other positions. Once we had secured funding, that was when the workload really ramped up. I was working ten hours a week and sometimes more, with emails going in every direction, trying to make decisions and trying to keep everyone in the loop.”

Managing the amount of paperwork involved in structuring, reporting, organising, communicating and decision-making became a real headache. “I’m not that computer literate,” says Richard, “yet you need to keep sending emails to keep everyone in the loop and get their feedback. It’s a lot easier to just talk to someone, but then things can get lost if they’re not written down and shared. We were used to working in a very non-hierarchical way where everyone decided things together.”

He was using his home email address and found it tricky to save and store things in a way that everyone who needed to, could access them. He suggests that setting up a group email address, or one dedicated to your group’s activities would be a good start to keeping things in order.

Establishing a working group of four people who were able to make decisions on behalf of the group, helped to keep things moving. The committee approved the Restoration plan and a 12-month budget, and so long as the Working Group operates within budget, things roll forward smoothly. The Restoration Plan, which local consultant Dave Cameron was contracted to write up, made the paperwork side of things a little easier. Dave continues to be involved with the group as there is a lot of reporting back to 1 Billion Trees and Jobs for Nature regarding expenditure and meeting the milestones set out for the project. “It’s a high-trust model,” Richard says, “but once we got into the details like liability insurance, hiring a ute and setting up bank accounts and things, there was just a stupid number of emails going back and forwards. By having this smaller group, everyone can be involved but not have to be consulted on every administrative move we make.”

“We had terms of reference drawn up regarding what our powers are, so that everyone knows what’s what. For example … as part of the 1 Billion Trees funding, $47,000 has been allocated to us to set up a nursery at the local school. We (the working group) drew up a budget to get the nursery built and started. The committee approved it, and away we went. The creation of the nursery had its own issues, and with enough on our plate, the nursery has been separated from our catchment group. It has formed its own entity, leasing the land from the school and creating its own business model.”

Another strand in the smooth running of this group has been the work of two women with exceptional administration abilities. Kirsty McCarthy turned up one day in winter and said she’d help the group for 6 months, to get things organised. “Her organisational skills are amazing, and her knowledge of the kinds of things that need to be done is the next level,” says Richard. “She has a background in setting up entities, admin and consulting, so she’s able to front-foot things.”

“We were reminded by Kirsty that Nick was going to start in a week (Nick Pratt has been hired as Operations Manager ) and she was saying ‘Ok, so you need to have a Health and Safety meeting and it needs to be recorded. You need to sort out payroll. Here’s how you do this and that.’ She does this stuff in her sleep but it took a huge load off me. Any group like ours absolutely needs a Kirsty.”

Another great administrator, Heather Hayman, came on board just before Christmas 2020 as a paid administration assistant. Richard was more than happy to hand over the thousands of emails that were sitting on his home computer. “Everything’s there,” he says, “from water-testing results to liability insurance to the details of hiring a ute for Nick to use, but it needs to be sorted into files. Heather and Nick were given phones and laptops and we needed to set up email addresses for them, and for us as a watercare group. It’s all these little details that take up so much time. And, up until now, this has all been done after hours – everyone has full time jobs as well.”

That “after hours” conundrum is a challenge in a small community such as Wainuioru, where the number of people who can put time into groups and projects, is limited. “There are quite a few entities in Wainuioru,” says Richard. “Us, the volunteer fire brigade, the school, the playgroup and the community association. There is also the water scheme and, more recently, the nursery. So, the pool of people to sit on boards and commit to long-term projects is limited.”

Despite these challenges, “our committee’s bloody good,” Richard says. “We’ve got a good broad range of people, aged from their mid-20s to retired. We’ve got farmers, lifestylers, a farm consultant, a retired senior journalist, a member of Forest and Bird and a couple of accountants. Surrounding yourself with the right people definitely helps you get the jobs done.”

And like so many things, getting the job done is often dependent not just on what you know, but who you know as well. “We had to get liability insurance, and the insurer we spoke to said that first they needed details for every committee member,” says Richard. “And not just names and numbers but loads of other details which would have taken us ages to gather. Then another committee member rang someone they knew at the local office of that same insurer. That person said ‘okay that’s fine, and we’d like to give you some sponsorship as well.’ It really is about leaning on those people you know in the right places.”

Some further musings from the WCRCG

Finding the right people to work with you from the right organisations

Richard believes that the group couldn’t have been anywhere near as successful without the huge amount of support they’ve received from Tash Styles at the GWRC, Rob Stone from DoC, and Rachel Griffiths from Kāhu Environmental who was contracted to Beef and Lamb NZ to be their science mentor for their water monitoring and to help with some group coordination.

“Those connections with people are a big thing,” he says. “If they thought we were rogues, they wouldn’t help us, I guess. But they have all gone way beyond what they ‘need’ to do in their roles, and have used their own time as well to support us all the way.”

Succession

What’s going to happen when the funding runs out?

“People in community roles can easily get burnt out. In my opinion, to keep the depth we really need to draw together the community from right across our east coast. We’re all going to need to do farm plans, so could we do this from a catchment approach to get some economy of scale around it. Every farmer wants to leave their land and water in better condition, so we need to have input into a wide-scale plan that interlinks with individual farm plans.”

Keeping the Community Informed

To keep community members informed, the WCRCG uses occasional newsletters, a website and a Facebook page. The newsletters are delivered to all households by the two local posties. They could also be sent out via an email list, but that wouldn’t cover everyone in this community.

Wainuioru Water Quality

Water quality monitoring

WCRCG Team

WCRCG Team

Wainuioru River

Wainuioru River