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Southface: Building a Movement

Since its inception in 1978, Southface, an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable homes, workplaces and communities, has become the leading voice of sustainability in, and beyond, the Southeast.

Named for the direction its Atlanta offices face to take full advantage of passive solar opportunities, Southface's holistic approach to its mission profoundly demonstrates a commitment to practicing what they preach. In a recent interview, COO Michael Halicki and Marketing & Public Relations Director Judy Knight dove into the organization's philosophy of knowledge sharing; building a diverse—and perhaps surprising—set of partners; and taking a market-driven approach to advance sustainable building as a mainstream opportunity.

Both stressed how Southface consistently leverages collaboration to power their mission and drive results, observing that they can achieve far more by expanding their breadth and number of allies, rather than "doing a little bit of good among a small cohort of like-minded partners." Southface sees its collaborative approach as both a strategy and responsibility: "While we can't achieve green building perfection" Knight concedes, "by collaborating with many partners, we are able to reach and engage the broadest possible audience in making progress toward creating more sustainable homes and buildings. As an example, the EPA recently named Atlanta #3 among the U.S.' largest cities for its number of ENERGY STAR qualified green buildings.

Southface consistently leverages collaboration to power their mission and drive results, observing that they can achieve far more by expanding their breadth and number of allies, rather than "doing a little bit of good among a small cohort of like-minded partners."

"The market is the greatest force for change," says Knight, and Southface has learned to deftly leverage this approach to get results. They have found an untraditional ally in the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association (GA HBA) the GA HBA and Southface share a common interest in the energy and costefficiency that green building delivers. Together, they developed the EarthCraft program, a regional green building certification that is now available throughout the Southeast, and has certified more than 18,000 homes and buildings to date. Southface also partners with fellow nonprofits, helping them reduce operational expenses through more efficient building practices. Its Grants to Green program, which has assisted Atlanta-based nonprofits like MedShare, Hands on Atlanta, and CARE, identifies energy efficiency upgrades and helps organizations learn how to adopt sustainable practices. The program is a win-win, says Halicki: "If we can make the buildings that house Atlanta's nonprofits more efficient, the money they save can be put toward accomplishing their missions." He goes on to note, "this is a good study on how you create more environmental advocates. Experiencing the cost savings that go hand-in-hand with energy and water efficiency creates believers!"

Building partnerships and alliances, says Halicki, is a process that begins with potential partners seeing value and opportunity for themselves.

Convening for a Cause

In addition to building highly successful collaborations with the building industry and nonprofit sector, Southface acts as convener and facilitator, urging diverse audiences to find meaningful connections and common ground upon which to build. "We bring people together who need to meet each other; we make that happen through Southface's meeting rooms and classrooms, which are available to any organization to rent," says Halicki.

A compelling proof of concept for a sustainable workplace, the Southface Eco Office and the Southface SWEET Center host thousands of visitors annually for classes, meetings, social gatherings and tours. Visiting the Southface facility is a lesson in contemporary smart design—and the ease with which energy-saving best practices can be adapted to any organization's or business's building strategy. The Southface Eco Office serves as a model for saving energy efficiently and practically. It also uses 84% less water than a comparable 10,000 square foot building, primarily by using captured rainwater for all sewage conveyance (toilet flushing) and irrigation. Throughout the year, Southface hosts an ambitious agenda of programs and events, tours and classes for building industry professionals, which bring together diverse audiences. As an example, Halicki cites Southface's Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable (SART), a monthly discussion forum that convenes policy makers, industry professionals and the nonprofit community for a spirited exchange on a wide range of sustainability-related topics, ranging from water conservation to organic farming.

The challenge of collaboration is the dynamic relationships that occur within them, resulting in a "moving target" of people, ideas and knowledge.

The challenge of collaboration, says Halicki, is the dynamic relationships that occur within them, resulting in a "moving target" of people, ideas and knowledge. Through SART, held on the first Friday of each month and open to the public Southface has hosted state and local legislators, national experts from all walks of sustainability, and leaders from within our own communities. Other events draw architectural and corporate audiences, "bolstering partnerships from different sectors and engaging participants on multiple levels," says Halicki.

The result—a growing population that believes in enhancing our region through sustainability. "Southface is happy to share everything we know, " states Knight, " "our mission to advance sustainable homes, workplaces and communities can only be accomplished when many people engage with us, and with their own communities; we really can't make the difference we hope to accomplish by acting all by ourselves," states Knight.

Lessons Learned

What advice does Southface offer to fellow nonprofits?

"Be open to the next good idea that comes across your door," says Halicki. This has been a driving force in Southface's success, along with receptivity to new ideas and acknowledging ‘that you haven't figured everything out.'"

"Connect with everyone you can and work with them on some level—find that common ground to make things happen," he adds.

Halicki credits much of Southface's success with the clear and enduring vision of its Executive Director Dennis Creech, who has "never fallen out of love" with the mission. "Keeping the mission always at the forefront of every endeavor means the staff never loses focus of its goals," he adds.

Through the many collaborations and initiatives that have originated from Southface, the organization's main goal is to promote energy, water and resource efficiency throughout the built environment; and, in turn, assisting others to find new opportunities by improving the performance of their own buildings. It is truly a win-win situation.

Breauna Hagan is Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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2.04.22 | Online