Lori Urso is the executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

My week begins, as my last one ended, with lingering decisions: Decisions about our board and about fund-raising; about important things (like a half-million dollar habitat restoration project) and about incidental things (like where to store an office chair in need of repair). Any decision, no matter how small, takes time — time to make it, and time to act on it. (And, if it was the wrong decision, time to fix it.)

I’m Lori Urso, and I have been executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association for four years, not consecutively. I was brought on in 1992 to bring the agency to a more professional level of operation, and asked back again in 2000 to do basically the same thing. Is it working? As far as we can tell, we’re making it happen. But like any nonprofit organization, we face the constant uphill climb of chasing soft money for sustainability.

No matter how professional we think we’ve become, the infrastructure of the agency remains a work in progress. In our 19th year of operation (WPWA turns 20 in July of 2003), we are still trying to figure out how to create the perfect board of trustees by optimizing the roles of board members, the level of their participation, and the support they can provide to staff on matters of membership, programs, finance, stewardship, and similar areas. At our last meeting, we worked out a committee structure, which was adopted unanimously by those present. Now comes implementation. Do I have my doubts? Sure. Will there be disappointment? Maybe. Someone’s expectations will not be met, and we may lose some good board members simply because they don’t have enough time to meet our goals. But we also have a chance at a dynamic and active board, which we would not have without a plan such as this.

We also find that, after almost two decades of hard work, we are now being identified by state and federal agencies as a source of contractual services, and that we are in a position to spearhead and coordinate projects in our watershed. We are able to do this because the Rhode Island Rivers Council awarded us the status of Watershed Council in 1999, which gives us legal standing as an advocate for our watershed.

At the board meeting I mentioned above, we discussed some of the state and federal proposals on the table. One was a funding proposal for a spring and summer study of native brooktrout in upper watershed streams, for which we have approximately $5,000 cash budget and equipment on loan to us from the EPA; the other was an inquiry by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration regarding our interest in coordinating a $500,000 river restoration project. As (il)logic would dictate, doubts were raised as to our ability to pull off the brooktrout study (the far smaller of the two proposals), followed by questions of why we would wait even for a second to take on the restoration project, a huge multi-year project of enormous proportions and consequence. Why, when the stakes are far higher, does our appetite for risk increase as well?

I think what drives this conflict is that same quest for sustainability I mentioned at the beginning of this entry. Sustainability is the one goal that tends to elude most grassroots nonprofits, which often struggle year after year to meet their budgets, get new members, and identify fresh sources of funding. When the purse is large, there are few arguments against taking the plunge (however awesome the magnitude of the project), because it may represent a chance at sustainability. Given that chance, we’re going for it.

And now that that decision has been made, let me see about this broken chair.