Experiential Consulting and The Audubon Society: A National Safety Initiative Takes Flight
In 2020, The National Audubon Society reached out to Experiential Consulting for guidance on building an organization-wide approach to physical and emotional safety at Audubon. This article will offer some highlights from that (ongoing) work, and lessons learned along the way.
As an avid bird photographer and supporter of conservation efforts, I (Steve Smith) was personally thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Audubon on their safety initiatives. This joy has only deepened as the work got underway and we got to know the remarkable people who have collaborated with us across the organization.
A Black-crowned Night-Heron being released after rehabilitation at an oiled wildlife facility months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo: Gerry Ellis
Where all of this started: National Audubon is a large and complex organization - really, a matrixed organization with state and regional offices, numerous nature centers and sanctuaries, and over-arching programmatic teams addressing key conservation and engagement opportunities (plus international programs as well). Since its inception in 1905, there has never been a unified, national approach to safety -- safety was, rather, managed locally among many departments from one chapter, sanctuary, or center to the next. While many thoughtfully crafted elements were already in place (developed by experienced people working hard on safety in diverse settings), there was no unified strategy for collaboration, consistency, sharing learning across the network, or leveraging efforts for the collective good. The organization had reached an inflection point where the leadership was ready to commit to an organizational change, but knew they wanted outside consultation on how to do it. This is where the Experiential Consulting team came into the story.
2019 Audubon Convention attendees tour Faville Grove Sanctuary with Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman Monday, July 29, 2019 outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon
Foundational elements of our collaboration: We knew from the beginning that change does not happen overnight, and that this would be a multi-year effort to properly engage stakeholders across the organization to build resources, develop training, and create momentum for organizational culture conducive to fostering safety in the workplace. Members of Audubon from across departments and regions came together to form two crucial teams: The Safety Steering Committee (to lead the effort) and the Safety Advisory Group, representing the full spectrum of work across Audubon, which allowed us to recognize and lift up expertise already present within the organization.
Olya Phillips, Citizen Science Coordinator at the Tucson Audubon Society, collects data from several nest box sites along the Tanque Verde Wash searching for signs of Lucy's Warbler nests Thursday, April 18, 2019 in Tucson, Arizona.Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon
Early in the process, we made some crucial philosophical decisions that built a solid foundation on which all of the following work would sit:
We grounded our approach in Audubon’s mission and values;
We clarified that our efforts were not just focused on physical safety, but also on psychological safety;
Accordingly, we engaged with and aligned our efforts with Audubon’s EDIB department (equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging);
We presented Audubon with different models and schools of thought, and mutually agreed to use an approach that balances both Safety I and Safety II approaches to safety management;
Accordingly, we have used a research-based, safety science approach to our work together;
We decided early on that our approach would involve a full suite of strategies -- not just policies, or training, but also focusing on organizational culture and committing to learning from incidents and near-misses.
Key accomplishments so far: It has been breath-taking to see how such a large, complex, national organization can embrace new ideas, courageously commit to new directions, clarify values and develop sophisticated resources to create momentum on physical and psychological safety.
Sunny Kellner, Sharon Audubon’s wildlife rehab and outreach specialist, feeds a days-old nestling that is so delicate that food is visible as it slides down its translucent throat. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon
Here are some of the key accomplishments to highlight:
Camps: With support from Experiential Consulting team member Jay A. Satz, who has a long career in risk management for youth programs and camps, we collaborated with Audubon leadership and camp staff to create protocols and training for Audubon camps across the country to successfully operate during the COVID-19 pandemic in both 2021 and 2022. During a recent camp debrief call, camp directors reported some parents saying that Audubon’s COVID protocols were “the best in the business.”
Manual: We convened working groups from across Audubon to build the first Safety Manual in Audubon’s 117-year history. We are now actively updating the Safety Manual to include a section on Emotional and Psychological Safety.
Training: We have designed and delivered training to 282 Audubon staff covering a wide range of safety topics including risk management strategies and philosophy, models of incident causation, creating a culture of safety at Audubon, camp-specific scenarios and strategies, the importance of learning from near-misses and incidents, manager training, and more.
Site Visits: We have visited Audubon Centers and offices across the United States in support of our collective safety efforts.
Incident Reporting: We are working on a national incident reporting system for Audubon so all incidents and near-misses nation-wide will funnel up to a central point to foster visibility, support to those affected, and lead to recognition of trends, organizational learning, and cross-departmental communication
Newsletter: To support all of these efforts and the culture change Audubon desires, we recently launched the first edition of an organization-wide Safety Newsletter (“In-Flight Instructions”) for all staff
Safety Equipment: Audubon recently invested in a central supply of safety equipment such as 433 brightly colored safety vests, 200 car magnets, 1000 t-shirts, and other materials to clearly identify workers in the field as Audubon workers. This has been found in studies to be very helpful, especially in the case of at-risk populations working alone in remote locations.
Safety Director: Audubon committed to creating a soon-to-be-hired Director of Safety role to lead these efforts and keep the momentum going, the first national role focused on safety in their 117-year history
Lessons learned through this partnership
Shelby Casas, far right, Coastal Program Associate for Audubon Connecticut and Audubon New York, works with seasonal Shorebird Field Technicians to enclose a Piping Plover nest along a private beach property in Sands Point, New York, May 10, 2022. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon
It’s not true that large organizations can’t change their culture and strategic direction. Audubon has demonstrated extraordinary agility in thoughtfully but efficiently building systems and resources they haven’t had in their previous 117 years.
To best meet Audubon’s needs, Experiential Consulting’s team needed to evolve and grow as well. By adding Taylor Feldman to our team, we increased Experiential Consulting’s capacity to tailor our work in the areas of inclusion, equity, diversity, emotional and psychological safety, and justice. Taylor’s engagement immediately produced remarkable results, drawing on work she had done in the past with Audubon and other organizations, as well as new materials she produced on Restorative Just Culture and Inclusive Language.
The steps that help to make an organization inclusive, diverse, and equitable also help foster physical and psychological safety as well. We have repeatedly seen strong alignment between Audubon’s EDIB work and the safety work we are doing, enhanced by the active collaboration between those departments and committees.
Safety II (also known as “Safety Differently”) is an uplifting and positive approach to safety that can capture the hearts and minds of people in very different roles and levels at an organization. The positive approach inherent in Safety II strategies naturally lends itself to the type of people attracted to bird conservation and related outdoor work.
A lot of the policies and procedures which are now codified in the field manual were distilled from excellent practices or habits that were already in place. We were able to synthesize the most effective practices from across different regions and capture them in writing to foster consistency across the organization.
Audubon immediately began to assimilate the concepts from our work into habits and daily practices. We saw an almost immediate shift in how incidents were viewed (and reviewed) by leadership in different departments as a result of our focus on restorative just culture, Safety II, and the goal of learning (not blaming) when an incident occurs.
Safety does not come from the top down, it arises from the good work people do every day. By understanding how normal work gets done every day, Audubon can make sure that policies, procedures, and training align with effective practices in the field. This starts by asking people what they need to be safe, not telling them what to do to be safe. We were able to accomplish this by bringing together working groups and learning teams across the organization to help create manuals and training, among other resources.
Managing risk effectively invites inquiry into foundational organizational aspects such as mission, values, and leadership. As Audubon has recently embraced new directions and new leadership as an organization, our safety work has invited and touched on questions of mission alignment, values clarification, and revealed different ways for leadership to manifest in the important work that Audubon does every day.
Safety can thrive if leadership embraces a shared approach with corresponding resources and organizational structure. While our shared work has arisen from the hard work people do on the front lines of Audubon every day, there has been a corresponding amount of effort and energy put forth from the highest levels at Audubon, including members of the Executive Team. As mentioned above, Audubon is also investing resources into new roles and teams that will be focused on physical and psychological safety for all -- a new approach for Audubon.
Our work is not done. While Audubon now has many foundational pieces in place, it will take years for some of the new resources to be integrated within an organization of Audubon’s size and complexity. At the same time, with the updated safety manual and a new safety director both coming on board soon, Audubon will doubtlessly evolve and develop the existing safety strategies so the need for ongoing maintenance will also continue.
The significance of this partnership for Audubon
Noemí Moreno, National Strategy for Bird Conservation Coordinator with Audubon Americas, smiles while participants learn about the ins and outs of guiding bird tours at Reserva Natural La Planada, a nature reserve in the southwestern department of Narino, Colombia. The workshop, in partnership with the National Audubon Society, will give locals the tools they need to successfully guide tours on the Southwest Andes Birding Trail. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon
Robert Harris, Director EDIB: "As a representative of the EDIB department, I was impressed on how much knowledge and understanding that The Experiential Consulting team already had regarding equity and inclusion. It’s been a great experience to collaborate on how we think about safety using EDIB as a grounding principle instead of a prescriptive add-on. It has really improved the quality of the work and results in a better overall staff and guest experience."
Alison Holloran, Vice President for National Audubon Society, has been involved since day one as a member of Audubon’s Safety Steering Committee. She reflected on the journey we’ve been on: “When I began this journey of creating a ‘Safety Manual’ I had no idea what a profound effect it would have on the way I thought about safety at Audubon and how this effort would be one of the first big steps in the culture change that Audubon is seeking. Safety has grown to mean so much more than just the traditional sense of ‘don’t hurt yourself’ to me and has transformed the way I think and work with my team.”
Loren Smith, Director of Network Development and Strategy added: “The most unexpected and rewarding realization for me has been the alignment between our safety initiative and our Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging work. Having a common framework for addressing physical and emotional safety will strengthen our support of people, build a stronger Audubon, and have structural and societal impacts as well. I’ve been extremely heartened by how many colleagues across Audubon have leaned into this work and how it has elevated positive capacities that already existed in the organization - and is creating a framework to develop more of these capacities in the years to come.”
The meaning of this partnership for Experiential Consulting
Audubon Delta Executive Director Dawn O'Neal, Senior Director of Conservation Shubham Datta, and Coastal Louisiana Project Manager Karen Westphal tour the bayous of the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary with Experiential Consulting's Steve Smith during a site visit in 2021.
We are more than grateful for the many ways in which this partnership has uplifted and energized Experiential Consulting’s mission. We believe in the important work that Audubon is doing, in so many ways -- from the obvious bird and habitat conservation efforts, to the educational programs, to their advocacy for wildlife and wild places, and their commitment to equity, social justice and inclusion.
By helping to develop an approach to safety, grounded in safety science and connected to their larger purpose, we believe that we have not only helped Audubon along their way, but expanded our own sense of purpose and capacity as a consultancy. This partnership has exemplified the reasons why we founded Experiential Consulting back in 2008, and assembled a team capable of providing the services which we have provided to Audubon.
Many thanks to all of the Audubon staff and community who contributed their photos, captions, and permission to use their images for this blog post.