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Interview with Green Cambridge President Quinton Zondervan, Part 2

Earlier this week I spoke to Green Cambridge president Quinton Zondervan about the work that the volunteer group is doing in the community. But even more interesting to me, as an organizer of Berklee’s sustainability group, was the chance to pick his brain about how he’s able to keep the group going in what little spare time he has. (Quinton is also CEO of biopharmaceutical company Excelimmune.)

Any advice on how to organize volunteer groups and keep people motivated?
It is really hard. You need a core group that’s willing and able to provide the basic infrastructure to keep an organization going. It’s not that much work, but somebody has to do it—somebody who’s willing to maintain the website, to make sure that the monthly meetings happen, that there’s an agenda and minutes are taken, just the basic administrative functions. If that’s running smoothly then you can help people who come in with specific projects. You find everybody’s niche, and then you need a couple generalists who make sure that everything hangs together. At some point you have to make that choice as a leader, that you’re going to focus on leading the whole thing and not so much on any one particular project. To keep any one project going, you have to find somebody to head that up. If it’s always you, then it can’t happen.

Some people are very issue specific. One lady was really interested in banning plastic bags, so we organized a few movie screenings of Bag It, which is all about plastic bags and what they do to our waste stream, and we’re working with city councilors on what kind of ordinance would make sense for Cambridge to try to reduce plastic bag usage. She doesn’t come to our monthly meetings, but we’re working with her on this specific project because she’s really interested in it. We’re just trying to be a resource for people.

Quinton Zondervan

Did you ask people to join who had particular skills or interests?
I found people who I’d been working with in different contexts, who I knew I could depend on and what their skills and strengths were, and asked them to join. You have to be flexible. It’s a volunteer organization, so you can’t force people to do things; you have to figure out what they’ll be willing to do and just support them, encourage them, and help them out to make sure it happens.

Did your entrepreneurial background prepare you to do this work?
I started out 20 years ago as a college student running on-campus environmental organizations, so in some ways it’s nothing new to me. It’s a long road of trial and error. The most important thing is to sustain it. That’s probably the hardest part, to keep yourself motivated and focused on this project and carrying it through. And then the next one. And the next one.

Do you find that talking about climate change is a good motivator?
If you’re asking about the general population, no it isn’t. It’s pretty widely accepted that climate change is happening and we have to do something about it, but talking to people directly about that problem is not necessarily going to motivate them to do something different. But having said that, that doesn’t mean we should shut up about it. It’s there, and we need to figure it out. But in terms of motivating people, I always try to find out where they’re coming from, what matters to them, and then how to connect to it. There are whole sections of our community who are really concerned about the health impacts of pollution. When you talk to them about that, you’re still dealing with climate change, but you don’t have to call it that. The fact that it may in some abstract way help climate change is kind of irrelevant to them. Ultimately, you don’t care what motivates them as long as they’re doing the right thing. We had people in our college group who loved running chainsaws. We’d get them out there to chop down invasive species. They didn’t care about environmental issues; they just wanted to chop stuff down with a chainsaw. You’ve just got to figure out what matters to them and how you can use that.

When I was meeting with college administration 20 years ago, I walked into the Office of the Comptroller, and I noticed all these pictures of coral reefs on the wall. This guy had the reputation of being conservative, no interest in environmental issues, but he loved to go scuba diving; he went to the Caribbean every year. And I said, we’re destroying all of that. He wrote funding for the recycling program into the college’s budget because I made that connection for him, and it’s still running to this day.

That’s what you hope will be the life cycle of these volunteer projects. You do this for free for a little while in order to get it started and show the benefit of it, and hopefully it’ll just become another workaday thing for the organization.
Absolutely. You have to put it into the infrastructure; otherwise it’s going to fall away. That was a big piece of learning for me—how to work with the government of whatever institution you’re working with: the college administration, the city, the condo board. You always have to do both. Recruit the volunteers, get the thing going, and then work with the governing entity to make it part of their daily operation.

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