We Conserve

If there was one thing I loved about working at the Conservation Council of Ontario, it was the ability to think big. We were a 50+ year old council made up of senior non-governmental organizations across Ontario. It was our job to push the envelope of voluntary action – to be radically pragmatic.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for change came after the big blackout of August 14th, 2003. The entire province was without electricity for several days, and all of a sudden the word “conservation” was on every politician’s lips.

Two years later, with a strong conservation mandate, the Ontario government launched an “Ontario Conserves” initiative. We responded with our own campaign: “We Conserve”. The message was that we had to “think like a movement” – that conservation was everyone’s responsibility, and that Ontario’s voluntary sector was part of the solution.

And what fun we had. We started with a simple campaign, “Doors Closed,” which provided community groups with posters and literature to canvas local stores and ask them to close the door when running air conditioning.

We held an annual Conservation Summit to track Ontario’s progress and to report on Ontario’s conservation trends. Had we been able to continue, we would have built up a valuable record of the change in conserver values over time.

Alas, the government’s interest in conservation waned, to be replaced by the rising concern over climate change. Although conservation remains vital as a climate solution, the interest in branding and marketing conservation died out.

The last major contribution of the We Conserve campaign was a provincial voluntary transition strategy in 2011, “We Conserve: Ontario’s Conservation Strategy.”

The strategy laid out a roadmap for collaboration and voluntary leadership. It still stands as an example of what could actually be accomplished if we all worked together.

If there is one overriding lesson, it is that we need to find ways to resurrect the leadership role of the voluntary sector in charting the path to a sustainable , climate -friendly future.



It’s every organization’s dream – a major donor who believes in your mission, provides core funding, and helps promote your programs.

In 2004, The Beer Store was looking to consolidate its in-store coin boxes into one box and three charities: one selected by the employees union, one to reduce drinking and driving, and one environmental. They selected the Conservation Council of Ontario because of its province-wide mandate and scope, but also because the conservation message fit well with The Beer Store’s deposit-return system and its commitment to energy conservation.

The Beer Store became a major sponsor of the We Conserve campaign, a partner in the Doors Closed campaign. It also ran promotional posters in its 450 retail stores across the Province.

The Council was also able to support The Beer Store where it was demonstrating conservation leadership. In particular, I participated in a media event to celebrate the return of the billionth bottle under the Bag it Back program to recover all alcoholic beverage containers across the province.

In these days of budget cuts and ever tightening constraints on funding, it is becoming increasingly important to develop synergistic relationships between green businesses and green charities. It is increasingly becoming a focal point for building the new climate action movement.




When a cause is shared by many, a network can make a world of difference.

A network can be empowered by its membership to act in their common interest, or it can strengthen the role and contributions of its members. A great network does both, and can adapt with changing circumstances.

In the mid 1980s, I started my career with the Conservation Council of Ontario (CCO), a formal council of 25 organizations and 50 individuals. It had been founded in 1951 as a united voice for conservation interests at a time that predated a Ministry of the Environment.

If the life of an NGO is hard, the life of a network can be even harder. Several times over the thirty years I was with the CCO we experienced a funding crisis, and each time we rebounded with a combination of creativity and leadership.

  • In the 1980s, it was the Conservation Strategy for Ontario, a major study supported by the work of seven issue-oriented task forces made up of Council members and other advisors. The report helped pave the way for the Ontario Round Table on Environment and Economy, the Province’s response to the World Commission on Environment and Development.


  • In the early 1990’s, it was the Community Action Program, a 180 degree shift in focus from government policy to community based action. Several of the participating communities used our low-cost model as a stepping stone to be selected as a Green Community under a provincial energy conservation fund.


  • After the 2003 blackout, the CCO responded to the Province’s call for energy conservation with the We Conserve initiative and Doors Closed — a highly successful movement-based social marketing campaign.


  • In 2011, coming full circle, we published Ontario’s Conservation Strategy as a voluntary transition strategy reflecting the commitment of the Council and its members.


Currently, the CCO is again dealing with a funding crisis. In this, it is not alone, for the constant cuts in funding combined with ever-tightening constraints on funding programs has made it increasingly difficult for many environmental networks and organizations to stay afloat.

If your organization or network is struggling to find the right mission, or is in need of new ideas, I can help. I’ve experienced it all from the inside, which makes me a perfect outside advisor.

Smart Growth

It’s 2002, and urban sprawl is running rampant in Ontario. Several of Ontario’s environmental leaders attend a national smart growth conference in Winnipeg, and we return with a recognition that if we need to join forces to tackle the pro-development forces.

The Ontario Smart Growth Network (OSGN) was formed in 2003, hosted by the Conservation Council of Ontario and with the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, the Sierra Club (Ontario Chapter), the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, the Pembina Institute, and the Toronto Environmental Alliance as early provincial members. All told, about 80 groups from across the province sign on, and the campaign to replace urban sprawl with smart growth is on. With Jane Jacobs endorsing our vision for smart growth, and with a groundswell of public concern, we were able to turn the Province around.

The OSGN and its members were instrumental in creating the demand for a new approach to planning and development, and in 2005, the Province introduced the Places to Grow Act, new density requirements for municipalities, and the Ontario Greenbelt to protect prime farmland around Toronto.

With success came the challenge of implementation, and here things fell apart. The Growth Plan included very little funding for community engagement (outside of setting up a Greenbelt Foundation). Even now, at a time when community engagement and support is vital for achieving the goal of a “complete community”, there is precious little funding available for community projects or provincial organizations, let alone a provincial network.

The OSGN wound up in 2016.


Jane’s Walk

How to get people interested in urban design and community building? The solution: Jane’s Walk, an annual celebration of Jane Jacobs and the work of community leaders around the world.

In 2006, as chair of the Ontario Smart Growth Network, I came up with an idea for a series of community walks to showcase community design and local groups. The idea was picked up by friends of the late Jane Jacobs, and within three months we ran the first Jane’s Walk on the first weekend of May.

In 2016, over 1,000 Jane’s Walks took place in 212 cities in 36 countries across 6 continents.