Dr. Marco Blumendorf shares his experience of founding and building a charity and an association to create more sustainable cities in Europe by supporting novices and expert-professionals to become more sustainable. He shares the development of the organisation from the first event they ran to their current vision.
Listen to the interview:
Marco led the development and technology department at the Berlin-based startup smartB Energy Management GmbH. He has strong experience in building teams and managing international IT projects and earned a doctorate from the TU Berlin in 2009 for his work in smart environments and human-computer interaction. Marco enjoys traveling, sports and being outdoors and is enthusiastic about sustainable living. Together with Florian Weingarten, he started Sustainability Drinks and GreenBuzz Berlin.
They are looking for information to:
- Measure the long-term impact of their events
- Build a community
- Finance and fund a full-time position.
Find out more or support them with their vision:
Facebook: GreenBuzz Berlin
Erika: Hello and welcome to OPEL Stories where today we’re speaking to Marco Blumendorf. Over the last 4 years, he’s been working with his friend, Florian Weingarten, on a sustainability project, bringing people together from all over Europe to create a more sustainable planet.
Thank you so much for joining us Marco. So tell us more about your work.
Marco: Well, we started working on it in 2013. We had our first event in 2014, in the beginning of 2014, and we basically bring people together with an interest in sustainability and show sustainability initiatives in Berlin. The drinks series is called Sustainability Drinks and we also founded an association, which is called Greenbuzz. Sustainability Drinks is inspired by Sustainability Drinks Sydney, which I visited in 2011 and it’s basically an open format: everybody is invited, we have two presentations and then a lot of time for networking and for people to exchange ideas and talk to each other and get to know each other. The association GreenBuzz is organising these events, these sustainability drinks. We have about 14…15 volunteers and now we organised about…between 12 and 20 events per year each with around 80, some bigger events with 100 or 150 participants. Around that, we also partner with an association from Zurich, which is also called GreenBuss, hence our name, and together with them we founded GreenBuzz Global and we’re now working on exporting this format, this idea, to other cities. At the moment we have GreenBuzz Zurich, Bern, Geneva, Amsterdam, Sofia and Berlin.
The overall aim is to help people to make sustainability a core part of their life, privately and in their work, so we are addressing basically three kinds of people in our events. The first ones are the ones that are interested in sustainability as a topic but don’t really know much about it. The second ones are those that already know quite a bit about sustainability and they want to change something but they don’t know how or what, either in a private life or also, maybe even more importantly, in the work life; and then the third group of people are those people that already working sustainability and are kind of the sustainability experts. So we’re aiming to bring these people together and basically help them transition along these different levels by providing knowledge, connections, best practices, examples or solutions for a specific issues…and yeah, so this way if you are interested in sustainability then we tell you more about it, if you’re already in a place where you want to change something then we try and give you ideas on how to take action and if you’re a sustainability professional then we want to help you solve specific challenges or bring you together with people that you need to solve your challenges.
Erika: Hmm, so you’re targeting people wherever they sit along the spectrum, whether they are right at the beginning of their journey to improve their own life and make it more sustainable, and therefore support the planet, but then for people who are really involved with it further down the line and give them what they need in order to build their professional side.
Marco: That’s the idea, yeah.
Erika: Excellent, so what’s your long term plan with the charity?
Marco: In Berlin, we’re currently in the process of building a community of people interested in sustainability. We do that to find new ways to make Berlin more sustainable basically…have a more sustainable city and then also take that, what we do here, and bring it to other cities. So from that perspective it’s about taking action in Berlin – maybe not directly, maybe activating people to take action, bringing people together to start new projects and show which projects are already there and inspire others to join the projects or do the same and eventually build a community. Then on the GreenBuzz Global side, we are in the process of setting up the global structures so we have different chapters in different cities and now we’re finding out what’s the global governance structure that connects all the different chapters; and also how do we collaborate? How do we interact with each other? What can Berlin provide for Bern? For example, or how do we do events together? and how do we get to a model that’s easy to replicate in more cities? And basically the idea behind that is building a global community of sustainability professionals.
Erika: That sounds super exciting in the sense that – to actually bring people together from different cities and different parts of the world…because ultimately if you’re aiming to make each city sustainable to then make the whole planet more sustainable, to actually bring that connection and community in the activities themselves.
So for the regular person who may be isn’t involved in sustainability but maybe wants to become more sustainable, how can they start doing that?
Marco: Well you could start coming to our events and get inspired. (Laughs)
Erika: Excellent, step one. (Laughs)
Marco: Learn more about what people are already doing, about the initiatives that are there and join one or two of them. A lot of them need volunteers or need help with specific things so could be starting point. Also look at your personal life, change the things you do in your personal life, like get rid of plastic, go vegetarian, or even better, vegan; reuse your things, don’t throw too much away, maybe even reduce your possessions, stop buying a lot of stuff that you don’t need, and also talked about it. I think that’s very important part of it. I spoke to my mum about it, about plastic free July, living plastic free. She lives in a small village and she goes to the market every Thursday and after we spoke about it she went to the market and paid more attention to how things are wrapped up in the market. There were all these organic berries, or something, and they were…they came in a plastic tray so she started speaking to the people at the market stalls and they go, like, ‘why do you sell organic berries in a plastic tray?’ and they were like ‘oh, we never thought about it. Yeah, maybe we should change that.’ She brings her own little boxes and containers, like, ‘I want these berries but I don’t want the plastic tray. Can you put them in here please?’
Erika: Hmm, so to actually get that dialogue going.
Marco: Yeah. If you don’t ask for it then change is going to take a long time because you expect people to figure out what you already know.
Erika: Yup. Why reinvent the wheel when people are already doing it?
Marco: Yeah, exactly.
Erika: Yeah, and it also sounds as though it matches up with people’s desire to stop spending money. People want to save and yet we constantly buy so, actually, by reducing our purchasing power of things that maybe we don’t need so much, it’s a double…double win, both with our own pockets and…and supporting the sustainability of the earth as well.
Marco: Yeah, absolutely.
Erika: Hmm, super. So in terms of building the charity itself, what challenges have you overcome so far and how have you done it?
Marco: Well, our starting point was that we had to spend 5%, no, 10% of our work time on and social project of choice as a requirement from the start up, from the job that we were doing back then, me and my best friend that I started this with, and we started looking around in Berlin to see what’s going on – where can we join? What can we do? What sustainable initiatives or project are there? – and figured that it was very hard to find things and to figure out what was going on. There were a few events where the same people met, sat around a table and we’re talking but there was no possibility to meet a lot of people and to get a good overview of what’s going on in Berlin. So we then figured, ‘that’s what we’re going to do now, that’s what we going to start.’ So we started Sustainability Drinks.
It’s relatively easy to get it started: we set up a Facebook page, a website, a meetup event, put it on eventbrite and waited, basically, because all these platforms have mechanisms to distribute the events. We went around and told people about it but that’s pretty much it and then we were like, ‘ok, so how many people are we going to get? Maybe 20, maybe 30?’ So we found a location for that and started seeing registrations coming in. We asked people to register on eventbrite so we would get a good idea of how many people were coming and then there were 30 and then 50 and then 80 and then we were like, ‘oh shit, what are we going to do with all these people? That’s too much for the location.’ So we went back to the location and checked with them, what’s the maximum amount of people that we can fit into the space and they basically said if you take all the chairs and tables out we could probably fit around 80 to 100, and we were like, ok, cool, let’s see, let’s keep this going… and then we ended up with 150 registrations and 80 people coming to our first event. So what we thought it was a challenge to actually get some people and get enough people together turned out that that wasn’t really the challenge; the challenge was accommodating all the people that came because the interest in the project was so big.
So that’s how it started and then after that we started looking for more people to help us organise the event so we kept organising events and we also built a group of volunteers that wanted to help us with the organisation and I guess the challenge with that was finding them and then bringing some stability in the group because volunteers, basically by nature, have regular jobs and other things to do and just spend their spare time on the project. Then they come and… well, in the beginning a lot of them came and then left again and then someone new came… so all about, ‘oh that sounds interesting, let’s see what I can with you.’ and then, ‘oh no, this is real work, maybe there’s something else.’ (Laughs)
Erika: (Laughs) yeah, sure.
Marco: So finding motivated members to organise the Sustainability Drinks and then also keeping them motivated because all of us do that for fun and in our spare time so it has to be fun and something we actually want to do. Yeah, so in the end it worked out quite well, I guess also because we had this mindset…like, we do this for fun so it has to be fun to do it. Well, we aim to build a self organising group of people with no boss or anything; everybody was equal and everybody could contribute the same. Everybody could take a topic and organise an event around it and everybody else would support him or her doing that.
Erika: You’ve mentioned a little bit there about mindset and I know that, having known you for a while or spoken previously, you have quite a unique view on mindset. For many people, the challenge with starting something or setting something up is the fear in the uncertainty of what might happen. How do you manage that?
Marco: I guess the short answer is we embraced it. In the beginning we weren’t sure if anyone would even be interested in what we’re doing so that was the uncertainty and what we weren’t sure about and it turns out there wasn’t even a problem; it’s a totally different problem. So I guess the fun of doing something like this is exactly that – to be not sure what comes out of it and what the result will be and to just allow that to happen. We had a lot of the discussions around it in GreenBuzz, in our association: should we make our events more professional? Should we be more strict with the organisation? Should we be better in the how we open the event and how we introduce the speakers? And things like that; and then actually decided, no, we want it to be that way, we want to improvise, we want to give space, we want…we don’t want it to be perfect because we want… if a new member comes on board, we want to give him a safe space where he or she can organise an event and that means being allowed to make mistakes and improvise and fix problems when there is there. We never know how many people are coming and if we don’t have space for people then people have to go home, they can’t get in and that’s fine; and actually the feedback we got is that people really appreciate that kind of format and that they really like how improvised every event seems to be. Yeah, so I guess the uncertainty in it is also the beauty in the events and something that people really appreciate.
Erika: Hmm, and it creates a beautiful space for people to learn and to experiment and gain the skills they need, as you say, in a way that means it ok for them to…to make those mistakes or learn them along the way.
Marco: Yeah, absolutely.
Erika: For people who might be interested in starting their own events, what advice would you offer them?
Marco: Well, the main advice would be just do it.
Erika: (Laughs) Get right on with it.
Marco: (Laughs) Just give it a try because there is a huge interest around it. There are a couple of the event series in a similar fashion, the biggest one is Green Drinks. There Green Drinks in so many cities everywhere around the world so just go to one of them and check it out and see if that’s what you’re looking for and if not then just come up with your change format and then do yours. Like, from our experience people want these kinds of the events and they’re coming to the events because…not everybody yet, maybe, but more and more people are interested in sustainability and they’re very curious about doing something good with their life or their spare time or whatever. So if you manage to organised an event or provide a space where people can figure out what good they can do and how they contribute…how they can contribute to sustainability and to making the world a better place then they’ll come and they’ll join your events. Yeah, it’s a few easy steps: find a space, set up a Facebook group, invite the people to it and then find an interesting topic and an interesting speaker and you’re good to go! So easy this days. (Laughs)
Erika: (Laughs) Yep, you’ve nailed it and now none of us will have any problems, set for life.
Excellent. So if anyone wanted to find out more about your work, how can they do that?
Marco: We have a webpage, it’s called greenbuzzberlin.de and we have a lot of information about what we do there there. We have a Blog, we also have the event announcements there with some information on the team; there’s an email address, you can email us if you have any questions or, even better, just come to one of our events!
Erika: Excellent. Is there anything that you need from anyone who might be listening in order to take your events to the next level or to help create the community that you’re working towards?
Marco: So one of the things that we’ve been having difficulties with is measuring the impact of the events. How do we find out what people actually get out of the events? We get the occasional feedback of, ‘oh, that was great. I met this person to know and we doing some business together,’ but we haven’t found a good way yet to do that in a structured and useful way. That would also allow us to improve our events and be more impactful. I guess also what we’re looking for at the moment is to turn this network of people that are coming to our events into a community, where these people actually interact with each other and collaborate and start projects and, you know, directly…directly work together. So any ideas on how to do that, how to facilitate that better, that would be great; and the last thing we’ve been discussing is if it would be…or how helpful it would be to have at least one person working full-time, or part-time at least, on the project and then how to finance that.
Erika: So you’re looking for information on measuring impact long-term more information on building a community and financing and funding a full-time position.
Marco: Yeah, yeah.
Erika: Excellent! Thank you so much for joining me today Marco.
If you’d like to find out more about Marco and Florian’s work or get involved visit www.greenbuzzberlin.de you can join their Facebook group with the same name or you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you know of anyone who’s doing inspirational work that the world needs to know about, contact me directly at email@example.com and, until next time, in the words of Alan Watts, remember that the only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance.
* Music: www.bensound.com *
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