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Breaking Convention

Launch of a Trans-Disciplinary Practitioners Alliance



Why Is This a Groundbreaking Endeavor?

A visionary group of award-winning practitioners has joined together in a unique and quite extraordinary partnership to test and refine a truly “big idea.”  We believe it's one with breakthrough potential to bring transformative change to international conservation and development practice.  We believe it calls implementers and funders to a new, higher standard of work.  We believe it has the potential to improve today's prevailing models of global philanthropy.  And we believe that by joining our names behind it, we can help positively inspire tomorrow's practitioners, funders and scholars.


What’s the “Big Idea”?

There’s a pressing case for bringing bold change to conservation and development practice.  For too long, stubborn pressures within and across our fields have slowed innovation, held us hostage to trendy but ineffective approaches, fueled stifling competition for resources, and most importantly, failed too often to produce world-class work.

We can change it!  By bravely calling out what isn't working.  By rethinking what's possible.  By holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard.  And by evolving our disciplines into something courageously transcendent of field, brand and benefactor.  


It's time to build a truly next-generation practice.  

In this spirit, we're launching an appeal -- a call to action to implementers and funders alike -- to close the gaps between our disciplines.  To work intentionally in ways that innovatively transcend them.  It’s an idea whose time has come, and one that is a powerful manifestation of our collective obligation to work with a single purpose – to protect and preserve human and wild in balance, in all its forms, no matter our setting or scale, and in a manner and pace in keeping with our challenge.


Rather than work in the echo chambers of our own fields amidst comfortable conventions, it's time to push out into conversations and alliances that challenge, break and reinvent them.  Rather than adhere to stale methodologies and metrics, it's time to think up and test approaches that demand fully balanced designs by equalizing humanitarian, development and conservation outcomes.  Not as the exception, but as the standard. It's time, in other words, to reshape our fields into a singularly impactful and enduring practice, to positively transform how we work and what we can achieve.  


Put even more simply, we believe it's time to resist being labeled an "aid worker," a "development practitioner" or a "conservationist."  We must be them all.  When we work stubbornly attached to our occupational labels, we're constrained by the traditions and conventions expected of us. Limited as a result in the scope of our work and our influence.  And too often dissuaded from making the vital and urgent case, whether within our own organizations or with prospective funders, for work that boldly sits at that "impact sweet spot" between our conservation and development impulses.  

We believe that no matter our core discipline, we should be anchoring our work to a vision and a strategy that transcend field and brand -- that unite us in cause and accountability.  And we are striving to prove that it can be done responsibly and effectively.


What’s Missing in Our Practice Now?

While we've flirted with modest partnerships across sectors and fields, and been laudably quick to celebrate work that "integrates" objectives, our approaches remain fundamentally cautious.  We're tinkering at the margins of more innovative thinking.  And too often we're producing unbalanced outcomes with devastating long-term costs.

Today’s interdisciplinary and "integrated" models represent a cautious, limited and carefully scoped intersection of our interests and capacities. They speak of our "complementarity," our "linkages," and our "combined evidence base."  They speak to "people-centered conservation" or "integrated development."  But they leave each of our disciplines still at the center of our own respective working models, beholden to a stubborn binary paradigm keeping our fields, in most places and in most ways, working apart.  So much more is possible, and so much more inventive is urgently needed. 


Rather than see today’s interdisciplinary approach – and our allegiance to the “integrated” models, “integrated” programming and “integrated” research rooted within it – as an inflection point in an evolutionary process for our fields, too many are celebrating it as the goal line, as evidence of optimal organizational sophistication and programmatic impact.  It’s at least possible that it’s neither, and that it represents instead an important step inviting a far more courageous and far more promising evolution to a fuller joining of our interests and capabilities. 


It’s this full joining, a deep convergence of disciplines, that needs our discerning and accelerated attention if we are to meet our task and our potential.  More on this is available under the question category "But What About..." in the FAQs tab.

Where Can I Find the Ideas Behind the “Big Idea”?

Background to the genesis and scope of a call for trans-disciplinarity can be found in Elizabeth's groundbreaking article “A Practitioner’s Case for Working Differently."  It presents a vision that unites our fields behind a common strategy.  It makes a case for why bold change is needed for a more enduring impact, and may well be essential to the long-term viability of the conservation and development movements themselves.  It introduces an illustrative strategic framework that can be shared across fields and organizations as a new kind of umbrella paradigm, helping to break the binary and encourage designs and partnerships that thoughtfully transcend discipline.  It candidly explores the potential and promise of its application in practice, and the possible consequence of its use to our organizations and our fields.


Has Any Fieldwork Been Done to Test the Idea?

Elizabeth undertook privately funded fieldwork with three leading practitioners, each of whom is now a founding member of the alliance.  It was a “Proof-of-Concept” effort looking at the viability of institutionalizing a trans-disciplinary vision.  The work yielded enthusiastic interest and exciting promise among field teams, ultimately inaugurating a 1st-of-its-kind partnership.


Why Launch A Practitioners Alliance?

For starters, it's never been done!  Rather than the far more common convention of building alliances of organizations and brands, we want to build an alliance of individual change-makers.  And with any new idea, our foremost task is to critically examine and showcase the impact it has in practice, to document the change it evokes, and to shape and refine its future scope and direction through that exploration – a “Proof-of-Impact” to follow “Proof-of-Concept.” 


The Practitioners Alliance is a remarkable collaboration that will critically examine and showcase the impact of a trans-disciplinary approach in practice.  It harnesses an extraordinary combination of voices, expertise, and reputation, leaders with vigorous curiosity, enterprising spirit, and an eagerness to inspire change and energize conversation within and across our fields.


What Are the Goals of the Alliance?

We are setting ourselves to four primary goals:


1.  To trial and document the change in ground impact that’s observed when we adopt a trans-disciplinary outlook, and design or modify our work with a real and full balance of disciplines and considerations

2.  To invigorate and amplify the important conversation needed around the case for trans-disciplinary practice, contributing experiential learning, inquiry, reflection, critique and original authorship

3.  To explore and propose promising mechanisms by which practitioners, funders and researchers can contribute in meaningful ways to a trans-disciplinary movement and to its realization and testing in practice.

4. To join our voices together thru digital, regional and international platforms in a clarion call for work that constructively and imaginatively challenges entrenched conventional paradigms prejudicing outcomes and stifling more creative effort.


What Will the Alliance's Output Be?

Regardless of form or format, it will be a body of work and engagement that's accessible, honest, thorough, discerning and reflective.  Its value will be in its impact on the ground, on the direction of our practice, and on the imagination and work of our colleagues.


Our written output may take the form of a compendium of case studies, or it may take the form of a collective position or a set of recommendations based on experiential trial and observation, or perhaps both.  We may also engage at national or international forums that invite and inspire interest and contribution from a wide community of practitioners, funders and scholars, as well as the public. When possible, we may also consider opportunities or requests to provide briefings to organizations, universities or funders interested in a deeper exposure to our work and ideas. 


Who is the Target Audience?

The alliance is a partnership of leading practitioners who see the potential for opening what may be a watershed frontier in our practice.  This is not a research effort, and nor are researchers the primary audience.  It is an action effort.  While we expect the work to interest and impact a wide community, including funders, boards, theorists and scholars, our target audience is the Practitioner, and its metric is positively transformative and recognizable ground impact.  


How Is the Alliance Envisioned to Work?

The alliance launched through a series of “rolling engagements” between Elizabeth, whose ideas and work are at the foundation of our collaboration, and our Founding Principals and Affiliates whose portfolios of work form a kind of testbed for trial and innovation.  These individualized engagements combined distance and on-site work to test adoption of a trans-disciplinary approach.  


We're embedding a dynamic balance of disciplines and considerations into project strategies and designs.  And through the prism of this work, we're looking together at areas where associated change to an organization's broader strategy, leadership, staffing or growth may improve or accelerate outcomes. 


We will continue the effort!  And as our movement grows, we will work across our alliance to turn over learning and ideas together, and evaluate outcomes.  We will trial and showcase change to individual portfolios of work, considerate of an organization's unique profile and reach.  And we will engage across the alliance itself to share experience, lines of inquiry, concerns, limitations, and outcomes – all in service to strengthening each other’s impact, enriching the collective output, and deepening the experiential contributions we can make to consideration of trans-disciplinary practice. 


In essence, the alliance will work both “vertically” and “horizontally.”  We'll collaborate with each other through distance and on-site work as time and resources allow, and as we believe helpful to the exchange of ideas and to the pace of our work and experimentation.


How Might Other Practitioners and Scholars Get Involved with Alliance Members?

It’s possible in time that our alliance will be in a position to offer a unique and impactful opportunity for other practitioners and scholars to engage with its members on-site in ways that directly test, advance and embody a trans-disciplinary vision in practice.  It would be one that seeks to apply inventive practice and research in a trans-disciplinary spirit, and in likelihood may combine a practitioner-in-residence program with one of applied research.  A "TranscendDiscipline Field School” like it would bring practice leaders and academics together in innovative ways to dramatically expand the range and application of work and inquiry for immediate relevance, perhaps through a rotation of work or fellowship with alliance members.  It would encourage work and scholarship that doesn’t just cross disciplines but seeks to transcend them. 


Might the Alliance Itself Expand?

The alliance is launching with a vision to build the next wave of ideas behind trans-disciplinarity together, and in anticipation that a trans-disciplinary movement that galvanizes our fields and funders is near at hand.  In that same inclusive spirit, an eventual expansion of the alliance is anticipated.  Inquiries and expressions of interest are welcome.


What Does the Work Promise and Risk?

The launch of a trans-disciplinary Practitioners Alliance represents an invitation to our fields to reshape our practice together, to re-fix our sights and our designs to a balanced strategy we can proudly share, and one that reflects a vision of our fields as more than simply a collection of specialized organizations and practitioners.  It's an invitation to our fields to revolutionize our perspectives and our approach, and one that shows exciting potential to accelerate our ability to lead and achieve change at greater scale, faster pace, and with more enduring outcomes.


Opening a new frontier in our practice or any for that matter, particularly one that boldly dissolves walls between us, will never be without its controversy, but we can strive to inspire change, not conflict.  We can seek to invigorate the conversation, not settle the debate.


For our scholars, a trans-disciplinary examination invites a more playful and creative dialogue.  For our donors, it invites a refreshing opportunity to realign funding scope and vision.  For our organizations, it invites an inspiring and healthy challenge.  For our practitioners, it invites real and liberating discovery.  Join us!

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