The Growth of the Binners’ Project
Kiri Bird is founding Program Manager for the Local Economic Development Lab. In our third and final year, Kiri’s work is focused on institutional and government relations, knowledge mobilization, building capacity for social innovation and systems change, and overseeing the sunset of LEDlab in June 2018.
Binners Project has been a close community partner of the LEDlab since the lab was first initiated in 2015. A binner is someone who collects redeemable containers and other things from bins to sustain their livelihood and to divert waste from landfills. LEDlab has placed two graduate students with the Binners’ Project and we continue to collaborate at various committees working to create a more inclusive economy in the DTES. Recently, I sat down with Anna Godefroy, Director of Binners’ Project, to catch up on their progress to date.
Where has the binners project come from? Where is it going?
Binners’ Project came from the need to regroup people with a common interest around the activity of binning. We were meeting once a month. The initial stage was just to hear the binners, to understand them more, to help them connect amongst each other. It started with very simple and humble goals.
Very quickly, once we recognized the needs we decided to act. Those needs were decreasing stigma and generating more income, and getting more stability in people’s lives. We’ve done that through organizing binning.
Where we are now, we offer capacity building through employment opportunities. We are part of the Tides Canada shared platform – which means we’re under their charitable status but we also have a number of social enterprise-modelled programs. I think it will remain like that – but there’s a pull in each direction – the social enterprise and the charity.
You’ve grown a lot in the last year! Can you say more about that?
We’ve grown immensely! We started with two (full-time) volunteers and a small group of volunteer binners, maybe 8. Now we engage with an average of 50 binner members every week. We are 9 staff, which includes 6 binners. We have interactions with more than 300 binners every year.
We have two social enterprise modeled programs: a back of house waste sorting service, and a public education program that we run at events. In 2017, through our work, over $109,000.00 went into the pockets of binners. Requests for public waste education at events tripled in 2017!
Increasingly, we receive speaking and public representation requests too. Last year, we brought binners and staff to represent the organization or themselves and their lived experience at about 40 conferences, panels, and public speaking events. Public speaking offers a unique opportunity to build our members’ capacity. The binners love to get out of the neighbourhood, meet new people, and talk about their binning work. This contributes to decreasing the stigma attached to survival activities like binning.
What do you think is responsible for the growth you’ve experienced?
Everyone, our team has worked really hard, including Tides’ Canada’s staff. But the binners, especially the core team, have trusted us, and that trust was critical to our success.
We’ve also had great partners. The rapid growth of Binners Project is because of the support of organizations like the LEDlab, UBC Learning Exchange, and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. But we’ve also had incredible clients – The PNE, RADIUS SFU, Car Free Day – these are our champions in the sense that they were open to test our services, they allowed us to innovate, to grow, and to sometimes fail and incorporate feedback. Now we have better systems, better offerings, and better value to offer future clients. I think there’s a lot of potential for our social enterprise models moving forward.
What are you most proud of the last year?
I’m most proud of our ability to build binners’ capacity. I’m seeing that the coaching we’ve done with our members is paying off. Many of our members are more stable in their life, they’re more professional when working with us, they’re able to plan their lives, and to see how their future fits into this community.
I love when we’re able to “activate” people’s capacity. When we actually take the time to assess and understand people’s abilities, they become strong, energized and therefore are able to better contribute to our programming. People’s abilities are too often underestimated in the Downtown Eastside. Often all that is needed is a bit of time investment upfront – but very quickly we see the results in dedicated and passionate staff and volunteers. Through our efforts we’ve been able to engage binners in strategy and governance positions. We’re not just hiring binners to do manual work – they are core to our organization and its future.
I think that’s what differentiates you from many organizations. What are some best practices you’ve learned along the way about engaging binner members in leadership roles?
We make sure we always compensate people for their time no matter what. So whether that means training, doing a small task for the project, or representing the project – like talking to the media or participating in local community development work – stipends are always paid by Binners’ Project. In order to make this happen, we build a line item into every budget. If you want to make sure it gets done, it needs to be in the plan, and it needs to be in the budget. Building capacity is the job. We are lucky that some funders, City of Vancouver, Vancouver Foundation, for example, welcome capacity building as part of our core offering.
The other thing is our coaching practice. I have a teaching background which helps me a lot in my work. We’re always trying to figure out how to bring out the best in people.
Instead of focusing on issues, we train our staff to focus on capacities, concrete goals, and outcomes that our members can accomplish. We track goals, we celebrate small victories. For some reason our members love clapping to the good news during our weekly meetings! We’ve been working this way intuitively in the past, but we need to figure out how to build more standard processes around this so that we can scale. That will be part of our work plan moving forward.
Well I look forward to seeing your thought leadership in this space! I think you’ve developed some really strong practices would be beneficial for other grassroots organizations. Thanks for speaking with me, Anna. It’s been a pleasure!
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