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An Introduction to Thriving Earth Exchange’s 2019 Program Assessment

Category: Uncategorized

What do you want to be when you grow up?

By Kevin Noone, Thriving Earth Exchange Advisory Board Chair

We’ve all been asked that question at one point or another in our lives; some of us are still trying to come up with an answer. The same question can be asked of organizations as well.

The Thriving Earth Exchange was established by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 2013 with a focus on communities, and as “a mechanism to address specific, real-world issues for societal good.” Effectively, Thriving Earth Exchange was charged to help establish community science as a “thing.” This was a bold and courageous step for a scientific society like AGU. It showed that the organization was ready to complement its support for Earth and space science research with initiatives that addressed the second half of its mission statement: “for the benefit of humanity.”

Thriving Earth Exchange was viewed as a start-up enterprise, and was wisely left to its own devices during its early development. Early on, Thriving Earth Exchange set itself audacious goals: to establish 100 projects, engage over 100 AGU members, catalyze 100 shareable solutions and improve the lives of 10 million people. I remember saying at the time that these goals should be viewed as aspirational; surely we wouldn’t actually reach them.

Boy, was I wrong.

By the end of 2019, Thriving Earth Exchange had actually exceeded these goals – so much so that it was awarded the 2019 Power of A Summit Award, the highest honor of the American Society of Association Executives. This award recognizes associations that go above and beyond their everyday mission to undertake initiatives that benefit the United States and the world.

Thriving Earth Exchange has very clearly exceeded expectations, powered by consistent and solid support from AGU, and by a phenomenally talented and committed staff. This tremendous success is worth celebrating. It also presents significant challenges. The current start-up model for Thriving Earth Exchange has reached its limit. Where do we go from here? How do we transition from organizational adolescence into adulthood?

Figuring this out is, of course, not a simple undertaking. To this end, Thriving Earth Exchange commissioned the consulting firm Sara Bolduc Planning and Evaluation LLC to perform an evaluation of the program during 2019. The firm carried out an extensive review, based on interviews, surveys and a focused case study. Like Thriving Earth Exchange itself, the evaluation exceeded expectations both in terms of scope and detail. It will take some time to digest this rich material, but I wanted to present some of the highlights I took away, and give an idea of how the Thriving Earth Exchange Board will be using it in our strategic planning.

First, some of the really good stuff:

• 93% of the participants were positive or very positive about their project
• 83% of community participants reported increased likelihood to use science in the future
• 73% of projects produced an immediate community benefit

These are outstanding results, and underscore why Thriving Earth Exchange deserved the 2019 Power of A Summit Award. They show how impactful the community science approach that Thriving Earth Exchange developed has been, and the value of its contributions.

There were also areas identified in the review that will require some work to address, and that will be the focus of our development in the near term. Some of these issues include:

• How to maintain support for projects that may take longer than the “normal” 6-18 months?
• How to scale up the number of projects and communities with which Thriving Earth Exchange works?
• How to better communicate the results and the utility of the process of Thriving Earth Exchange projects among and beyond the participants?
• How to ensure the long-term financial and organizational resilience of Thriving Earth Exchange?

The review provided us a sober and clear-sighted analysis of these challenges, and also provided some recommendations that the Board will be giving serious consideration. As such, it is a very useful tool, and was a wise investment.

The evaluation is exactly what we asked for: a high-quality analysis of what went well and what can be improved. Along with that analysis, we should also recognize something more intangible: that by launching Thriving Earth, AGU did something innovative, maybe even unprecedented, in connecting science and society. Thriving Earth Exchange is an AGU moonshot. Imagine a focused technical analysis of the first lunar landing mission. The review contains a clear analysis of what went well and not-so-well with the mission. It is very helpful in planning for the following moonshots. However, nowhere in the report was there a joyful exclamation “Holy Toledo – we’re walking around on the Moon!” My feeling is that Thriving Earth Exchange has the right to joyfully and proudly claim that we’ve made it to the metaphorical Moon, and celebrate this accomplishment. Mars is next.

Kelly McCarthy editor

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