Ten years ago we advised that grant writers and nonprofit Executive Directors “know your charrettes!” (the exclamation point is in the original title). Since then, though, we’ve heard less about charrettes than we really should. Until this week, that is, when charrettes hit me from two separate angles. The first is from Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. The book itself is highly recommended; large swaths of it could make their way into many proposals.* This passage, though long, has special resonance for me:
A few years ago, the water authority in the Greater Vancouver region faced a decision not unlike the one that confronted the citizens of New York two hundred years ago as to the fate of Collect Pond. A growing urban population meant that the region’s existing freshwater sources were not going to be able to meet demand in the coming years. New sources would have to be tapped, with inevitable impact on local environment, commerce, and communities. The city’s home in the rainy Pacific Northwest gave it the luxury of many potential options: three reservoirs could be expanded, new pipelines could be built to a number of distant lakes, or wellfields could be drilled along one prominent river. Like filling or preserving Collect Pond, this was a decision whose consequences would likely persist for more than a century. (Water from the Capilano River, for instance, was first delivered to Vancouver residents in the late 1800s, and continues to be a major water source for the city.) But this decision began with an earnest attempt to model all the important variables from a full-spectrum perspective. It built that model by consulting a wide range of stakeholders, each contributing a different perspective on the problem at hand: local residents living near each of the water sources being considered; indigenous people with sacred ties to the land being surveyed; environmental activists and conservationists; health and water-safety regulators; even local citizens who used the various bodies of water for boating, fishing, or other water sports. Stakeholders evaluated each option for its impact on a wide range of variables: “aquatic habitat, terrestrial habitat, air quality, visual quality, employment, recreation, traffic and noise, and property values.”
The approach taken by the Vancouver Water Authority has become commonplace in many important land use and environmental planning deliberations. The techniques used to bring those different voices together vary depending on the methodologies embraced by the planners (or the consultants they have hired to help run the process). But they share a core attribute: a recognition that mapping a decision as complex as establishing new sources of drinking water for a metropolitan center requires a network of diverse perspectives to generate anything resembling an accurate map of the problem. The most common term for this kind of collaborative deliberation is a “charrette.” The word derives from the French word for wagon; apparently architecture students at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1800s would deposit their scale models and drawings in a small wagon that would be wheeled out to collect student submissions as the deadline for a project approached. Students making last-minute tweaks to their projects were said to be working en charrette—adding the finishes touches as the wagon made its rounds. In its modern usage, though, the design charrette does not refer to a last-minute cram session, but rather to an open, deliberative process where different stakeholders are invited to critique an existing plan, or suggest new potential ideas for the space or resource in question. The charrette makes it harder for a complex decision to be evaluated purely from the narrowband perspective of a single business group or government agency.
One way in which charrettes differ from the more traditional forum of a community meeting is that they conventionally take the form of a series of small-group meetings, not one large gathering. Keeping the groups separate reduces the potential for open conflict between groups that have competing values, of course, but it also generates a more diverse supply of ideas and assessments in the long run.
The term “charrette” is under-used today, even though many RFPs include planning process questions, which can be best responded to by describing a charrette-like process. I’m not sure whether I’ll quote this passage directly in future proposals, or quote small sections and paraphrase the rest, but I’m confident the concepts will appear.
The second way charrettes arrived came from a client, who said that her organization was founded following a series of local planning charrettes. We’ve rarely heard origin stories like this; most nonprofits start the same way businesses do, when an individual or small group of people create a nonprofit corporation and file for a 501(c)3 letter. The charrette structure is unusual, and it struck me because it’s so rarely used. Too rarely used, one could say. An organization with that kind of origin story should flaunt the story. Which we, being good grant writers, will.
* Remember that reading is one of the open secrets of grant writing. Read a lot and incorporate what you find into your proposals.