Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes: Hill Country Alliance

Welcome to our profile series “Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes.” This series features Q&As with different conservation organizations to provide a view into what it takes to run a collaborative organization: from challenges faced in building partnerships, to tips for budding organizations. Whether you’re already running a collaborative and are looking to increase your efficiency, or are thinking of starting a collaborative but want to know more about what you’re getting into, we hope you find this series insightful!

The Hill Country Alliance works to raise public awareness and build community support around the preservation of Central Texas Hill Country’s natural resources and heritage. The nonprofit is uniquely intertwined with another organization, Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (the Network), which formed in response to the threats to natural resources of sprawling development, climate change, and population growth. 

Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance’s Executive Director, talked with us about the organization from its intertwinement with the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network to some of their methods for engaging stakeholders. 

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

 

How did the Hill Country Alliance get started?

I’ll talk first about the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network, and then I’ll talk about the Hill Country Alliance’s role:

The Network was started about 5 years ago when a research report came out about the landscape of nonprofits that work in Central Texas on conservation issues. That research, which was completed by research scientists Patrick Bixler and Ashley Lovell, identified the great breadth of nonprofits working in this landscape from the big state and national organizations all the way down to the small and locally focused “friends of the county park” kind of groups. 

Armed with this information about 20 different individuals and organizations started meeting on a regular basis to say, “We really do need to coordinate more effectively to scale our impact.” With that, we started meeting on a monthly basis. We were able to up our game in terms of formalizing with an agreement around an operating structure. And that is when the Hill Country Alliance, my organization, was formally named as the backbone organization to continue pushing the Network forward. 

Today, there is a steering committee that is comprised of 10 different individuals representing their organizations. We have an executive committee that’s tasked with the work in-between meetings. We hired a full time staff person, a Network Manager. He’s the person that wakes up every morning and pushes Network activities forward.

 

Can you talk a bit more about your organizational structure? Is it beneficial to have multiple staff members? 

The Hill Country Alliance, as the backbone nonprofit organization for the Network, has some key staff that are pushing on our individual action areas. We’ve identified primarily land and water as our big focus areas. It has been helpful to not only have a Network Manager who is overseeing all things related to operations of the Network, but have the Hill Country Alliance program managers also pushing our work. 

Another level of the structure for the Network is we have these teams affiliated with the goal areas of the Network. Our land conservation team is focused on how we get more acres and permanent conservation. We’ve got a land stewardship team that’s focused on what the latest and greatest best practices are around stewarding the landscape. We have several water teams, not only associated with statewide policy and groundwater management, but also with how we push out the right solutions for the Hill Country. It has been incredibly helpful to have staff that can ensure those teams, which are largely made up of paid staff of other nonprofit organizations, are accomplishing things in between meetings. 

That is a definite trap that you can fall into: meeting a lot and feeling like nothing is happening except that we’re meeting a lot.

 

Instead of meeting a lot and feeling like nothing is getting done, how do you make meetings effective? 

I think having a staff person or someone, even if it’s just a volunteer, who is designated as the team lead and accountability person who’s going to be checking in, picking up the phone and calling and saying, “Hey, have you done what you committed to do?” is really helpful. 

The other thing we found to be helpful, timing-wise, is that quarterly meetings are right for us. Any more often than that feels overwhelming and any less frequently than that, too much time goes in between meetings and it’s easier to let the momentum slide. 

We structure our meetings so that there is some shared learning at the top of the meeting. So usually that’s 20 minutes we carve out to pick someone and say, “Ok, you’ve got a really important project coming up. We want to hear about it.” We’re all hearing something together. And then we focus on report-outs. We want this person and that person to talk about the four things they said they would do and how that progress is going. 

 

How do you measure if you’re being successful? And how do you share those stories?

There are some areas where it’s easy to point to successes and some areas where it’s much more difficult. Like, how do we measure progress in ensuring we have groundwater for future generations? That is a really tricky task here in the Hill Country. 

What we decided early on was that we wanted to create a shared metrics document that is measuring not only our successes as a field of conservationists, but also measuring change in the Hill Country. It allows us to track our successes and ensure we’re rising to the moment, and it also allows us to tell the story of the need, of why we are doing what we’re doing. There are some measurements, like population growth in the Hill Country, that we are not seeking to affect. But we are trying to say, “Ok, if we’re going to double our population in the next 25 years, we need to do that in a way that’s going to protect land and water resources.” It’s been challenging, but it’s something that is so important to do, having that shared measurement system for setting out clear, quantifiable goals and showing that we’re all working toward them. 

We created a strategic plan that has measurable goals around the number of acres we want to conserve. We set a goal of 100,000 acres over 5 years. That’s a really big, ambitious goal in a place like Texas where we’re a private lands state, and often conservation easements come in increments of 400 acres and 150 acres and not so often in the tens of thousands of acres. 

We also are measuring success in our ability to mobilize new dollars. That has been a good way for us to show our impact, to say, thanks to the Network, we passed a $75 million bond in Hayes County to go toward private land conservation. That’s a really big and exciting number.

And then there’s also stories of successes that are more anecdotal, like new partnerships that have formed or launching new collaborative initiatives where folks are working effectively to greater impact. So even within the Network, we’ve created other subgroups like the Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining that is a new initiative that reaches well beyond our target geography. It works statewide to piece together all of the little neighborhood organizations that are fighting aggregate operations and looks to change state-wide policy on that. 

 

Could you talk about the partnerships you have with different organizations and tips you have for forming them? 

One of the things that has been instrumental in the formation of our Network is the partnership of a major foundation that works here in Texas. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has been a partner from the get go. They were the ones who funded that original research that took place 5 years ago that looked at the landscape of nonprofits in the Hill Country. Having them in the conversation early on and seeing the value that this Network was going to bring has been really important. 

Universities and private landowners are the other two big partners that have been influential in our effort. Texas State University, and specifically the Meadow Center for Water and the Environment, which is a research entity within Texas State, have been huge players in making sure that the research that drives our work, that informs where we’re focusing our attention specifically on groundwater management, has been helpful because they are seen as impartial. Their research has a credence that an environmental nonprofit doesn’t necessarily bring when talking to rural communities or private landowners. 

And then, Texas is a private lands state. Working with private landowners is the only way we’ll accomplish all of the goals we have. What we have found is that the Network, and especially the Hill Country Alliance, can help organize private landowners through tying them together geographically. Usually, it’s a matter of finding a key champion in some sub-basin of a river. When you have one landowner who says, “Man, I’m really interested in protecting the rural working lands of my neighborhood and the water resources,” help empower that landowner to convene their neighbors, to bring information about how you can work together, form a little watershed co-op where you’re keeping in regular communication with folks. And then, when a threat or communication arises, you’re ready to mobilize those neighbors. That has been the model we’ve pursued and I think it’s been really effective.

It’s so important to have those partners and let the funders or the university, or if you have a strong tribal presence or private landowner presence, let them be a driving force and be a face for your messages whenever possible if you’re a nonprofit that’s looking to champion conservation issues. 

 

How do you get stakeholders involved in your work? What works and what doesn’t?

We have taken a number of different approaches. One is hosting the very casual, informal landowner potluck. Food and drink always makes those stakeholder engagement meetings go better and form lasting relationships. 

I think that the other way to get stakeholders involved is when there is a very immediate threat. So responding to a proposal for a new aggregate operation or a new pipeline that’s being routed across private lands or a new subdivision development that threatens a local creek, using those opportunities to find a local champion to be the voice and then amplify and have folks connect in with the bigger world of issues that you are tackling is helpful.

The Hill Country Alliance’s approach has been to be a consistent source of news and information about the whole region. Folks kind of gravitate toward us as a real thought partner and someone who is a trusted source of information so that when these emergencies do arise, we can be an impartial source of ideas for a better way forward. It’s helpful though, to have more advocacy driven, perhaps more litigious organizations in the loop as well because you need both ends of the spectrum.  

 

Thinking of your own organization, what advice can you offer newer conservation groups that are just starting to form?

I really think there’s lots of research out there for what makes for collaborative successes and collective impact models. One of the most consistent ones has been trust building — continuing to really build and maintain good working relationships and trust and confidence in the fact that we need our collective impact to scale up all of our individual organizations. 

In a place like the Hill Country where we’re growing at such an incredible rate, I think there’s universal recognition that no one organization is going to be able to rise to the moment in the way that a collective can. So, focusing on the trust building, focusing on clear communications, and establishing some real clear structure and governance has been what’s allowed the Hill Country Alliance and the Network to really take it to the next level.

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Thank you Katherine Romans for providing your insights and experience!

Find out more about the Hill Country Alliance and the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network on their website

Share your thoughts and engage in a conversation about this piece using our Western Collaborative Conservation Network listserv.