How An Offers & Needs Market Helps Build Sustainable Practice

pink and yellow post it note with 'OFFER' and 'NEED' written on them

The irony of the modern market is that it can get a spare part from across the world, but a neighbour still might not know that the mechanic with the skills to fix the car is right next door – Donnie Maclurcan

So often, people working on sustainability in different organisations or communities are facing the same challenges. Sometimes, we’ve got people to turn to for support or advice – sometimes, or on some issues, we haven’t.

What if we could know how to connect with that support?

Running an ‘Offers and Needs’ Market is a way of discovering what kinds of support you might be able to provide to others, and what kinds you might need. And even though it doesn’t sound green (or perhaps because it doesn’t sound green!) it can also help build a culture of sustainability.

What is an Offers & Needs Market?

This is a simple participatory process which can quickly unearth hidden or latent resources, ideas, connections and match them with those who could benefit from them.

I took this idea, mentioned to me by my Post Growth Institute colleague, Donnie Maclurcan, and adapted it for a session I ran at work, which attracted participants from a variety of sectors, including business and industry, local and State government, nonprofits and tertiary education.

This process, like asset-mapping, is a way to ‘bootstrap’ communities by focusing on what passions, skills, resources, connections etc the group already has among itself. Reflecting back to people what they can already do is a positive way to short-circuit the ‘we-don’t-have-any-resources’ narrative and the all too common starting position of ‘what is the problem?’ and then (if you can even get out of talking about problems and who is to blame for them) going on to diagnose what needs ‘fixing’.

By the end of the session, we had already discovered a local business had a regular incoming supply of pallets that were not needed, and a number of people were after pallets to create furniture, or to help build the University of Adelaide HUB’s Edible Garden. Match!

How Can I Run an Offers & Needs Market?

'Offers' sign in green with participants' Offers written on green post it notes stuck underneath

'Needs' sign in yellow with participants' Needs written on yellow post it notes stuck underneath

This can be very, very simple and doesn’t require a lot of preparation. Here’s how I ran it:

1. Give participants two different coloured lots of Post-It notes – make it clear which colour is for Offers, and which is for Needs. You can easily make up simple signs that you can place on tables or put up for reference.

2. Starting with Offers (the positive, what people have to give), participants write down any kinds of support they think they can offer (what they’ve learned, what wisdom, insight, practical support or help they could offer to others), along with their preferred contact details. Give people as long as you sense they need, but somewhere between 5-10 minutes is a good rule of thumb.

For example: I can offer an ear of support; I can offer advice on how to talk to senior management; I have a surplus of eggs.

3. Switch to Needs – what are they working on, seeking, what kind of support do they require right now that someone else in this group might be able to help with? Give people 5-10 minutes to write down their Needs.

For example: I need help with how to engage with staff; I need ideas for sharing information; I need someone who knows about web development.

Participants can choose to make as many offers or needs as they like (or none, but encourage them to make at least one).

4. Ensure participants are aware that the making of an offer or expressing of a need means that it comes with implicit permission to contact, or be contacted about it. If there is something people don’t want to be contacted about, don’t write it down.

5. Before participants stick their Offers and Needs up on the wall, go around the room and invite people to introduce themselves and ‘pitch’ one of their offers or needs aloud to the group in 1-2 sentences. Reassure participants that if they would rather opt out of this right now, they can simply say ‘pass’. There should be no discussion or clarification during this process, as it will slow things down.

4. Ask participants to come forward and post their Offers and Needs on the wall, where they can be left there for the duration of the event for others to view.

5. Explain to participants that the notes will be collated into a spreadsheet, and shared with the group (could be emailed, or you might use Google Docs or Dropbox – you’ll need to sign up for a free Google or DropBox account if you don’t already have one).

Tips for Running an Offers & Needs Market

  • Instead of using Post-It notes, the market can be run differently by giving participants an ‘Offers’ and ‘Needs’ sheet and getting everyone to read out all of their offers and needs – then it is up to each participant to note who they might like to speak to or connect with after. A bit like ‘Offers and Needs’ Bingo!
  • If your situation and budget allows, creating a social atmosphere with some coffee or nibbles helps people to start talking and introduce themselves – it then it becomes more like a party than a ‘work’shop.
  • With a group of 40-50, allow about 15 minutes to both think of, and write down, ‘offers’ and ‘needs’. Then allow another 15-20 minutes for each person to tell the others their name, organisation (if applicable) and to pitch one of their offers or needs aloud so that the whole group hears. This needs to be a speedy process, so the pitch should be 20 seconds, or one sentence eg. ‘my name is Sharon, I blog at Cruxcatalyst, and I can offer articles that help support the communication efforts of change agents.’
  • If the group is bigger, or if you wish to get people to verbally announce all of their offers and needs, allow more time. People can and will breach the 15-20 second limit, so factor this in too!
  • I’ve been trying to work out a more efficient way to collate the information than typing up dozens of Post-It Notes and entering them into an Excel spreadsheet (believe me, if you have a big group of 100-200, you will want to think about this, or find someone to delegate this task to!), but without losing the physical, visual impact of writing down contributions and then placing them for others to view during the session. The latter is also low-tech and hands-on – actually writing things down gives words more power than if they stay in your head.
  • If anyone has any great ideas about the Post-It Notes (or any other suggestions or experiences with this process), please let me know! Otherwise watch this space – when I figure something out, I’ll write an addendum to this piece.

How an Offers and Needs Market Supports Sustainability

This kind of approach helps support sustainable practice in your organisation or community for several reasons:

  • it reduces consumption of resources by making the most of existing assets – if people can access what they need, they don’t need to buy it
  • it reduces waste – if someone else’s ‘waste’ can become another’s ‘resource’ (as per the pallets), it means less materials going to waste
  • it can deliver cost savings both a reduction in consumption and waste
  • it builds and enhances connections and relationships which are essential for any change process – knowing who is doing what, who has access to what, and who knows who are vital for getting things done

An Offers and Needs Market helps people save money, meet their needs, be helpful to others as well as contributing to sustainability goals of reuse and consuming less.

But perhaps most importantly, it could be an effective way to reach beyond ‘Pioneer’ frames to those who are not engaged with ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ by tapping into what people need in their lives right now.

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5 Ways To Rescue Groups Gone Bad

You’re in a meeting, workshop or public forum. You may be the person facilitating the gathering.

All of a sudden, for reasons you may or may not have anticipated, things go pear-shaped.

People start going off-topic, attacking others or getting upset about a niche issue that’s only vaguely connected to the one on the table for discussion.

The temperature rises, the feeling of conflict ratchets up a notch (or few) and that horrible sense of discomfort threatens to undo whatever has been achieved thus far.

What can you do to get things back on course?

brother and sister inside the same t-shirt that has 'the we will get along t-shirt' written on the front

One critical action you can take to keep a group ‘on task’ is to set some ground rules at the very beginning of the session. This is best done by asking the group for their suggestions (ie. their rules) as to what is acceptable process, and to decide what will happen if a participant does not want to comply with the ground rules. For example, the group might agree that personal attacks will not be tolerated.

Write them up on a board or butcher’s paper where everyone can see them, if possible. If there is any breach of these conditions of participation, the facilitator or other members of the group can then point to the agreed rules. This approach is also more likely to prevent the facilitator from becoming a target – because the rules were decided by the group, not imposed by the facilitator.

1. Lower the heat

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses:

Nonviolent Communication holds that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about their human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt, shame, etc. These ‘violent’ modes of communication, when used during a conflict, divert the attention of the participants away from clarifying their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, thus perpetuating the conflict.

In his Ministry of Food and Food Revolution TV series, Jamie Oliver encounters a number of these situations – it is worth studying how he worked to get groups hostile to each other, and to him, on the same page.

2. Ask participants to ‘play the ball’, not the player

Nothing raises someone’s hackles or puts them in a defensive position like feeling they are being personally attacked for an idea or point of view they are offering.

Ask people to proceed as participants in a conversation, rather than opponents in a debate. Remind them that everyone is there to deal with the common issue of concern, not to attack others.

If you are in the firing line, be prepared and know what you can do to help you survive personal attacks. Setting some ground rules at the beginning of the session about refraining from ad hominem tactics is preferable, rather than trying to manage them without the group’s agreement that this is not acceptable.

3. Reframe participants’ view of the issue from negative to positive

A discussion can quickly end up on the downward spiral if the focus is constantly on what is wrong, or what problem needs to be fixed, how it’s so-and-so’s fault, and that it’s such a mess it might never be resolved.

Yet if people are not given the opportunity to speak, or more importantly, to be heard, it is likely to fuel frustration and anger that derails the group. Demonstrating that you are listening by reiterating back to various speakers what has been said shows that you, and the rest of the group, have heard them. Active listening builds trust.

Using an ‘assets-based’ approach allows a group to focus on what is already working – focusing on positives and strengths, building on what communities already have – and how more of this can be achieved.

In situations where the engagement is expected to be ongoing, or the issues are very sensitive and/or complex, it may take up a whole session (or more) for people to air their concerns before moving onto the task at hand. It is likely that a lot of trust-building needs to take place, and that requires building personal relationships which takes time.

Watch out for ‘black hats’ and ensure they do not take over or scuttle proceedings.

4. Shift the focus to the present, and the common concern

While it is true that past events have shaped the current situation, allowing a conversation or group to keep going over the past can bog down the discussion and prevent a group from making headway about a common concern (which is why they’re there, right?).

Instead, mutualise concerns about the issue – get the group to think about what they have in common, rather than what makes them different.

blonde little girl with pigtails looks like blonde dog with floppy ears - different, but some things in common








Suggesting that the parties combine against the problem is a way to get a group thinking about what to do now, rather than engaging in blame games about the past.

It’s important to acknowledge that where there may not be common ground, it’s OK to agree to disagree. In addition, there may be several groups with a common purpose different from the other groups.

Be aware that there may be a number of agendas in the room, that each may need to be dealt with one at a time, and that this process could involve others through their provision of support and/or constructive criticism.

5. Shift the idea from a positional claim to an expression of need

People making claims and then defending positions are less likely to be open to differing viewpoints, and very likely to get others who don’t share their perspective offside.

Asking participants to instead express a need reframes the dynamic from ‘here’s what I want’ to ‘who can help me?’

Think about how you feel when you hear someone asking for help, rather than someone making demands. People are honoured to be asked for advice or assistance.

If you’re a participant in a session that’s gone off the rails, do what you can to help the facilitator get the discussion back on track. The risk of your ‘treading on their toes’ is probably far outweighed by their gratitude that someone else is backing up their efforts.

None of these steps are a foolproof panacea for facilitating groups, but they are some of the most effective tools for giving yourself the best chance of a positive outcome when things go awry.

Finally, accept that some days, despite your best efforts, the group is just going to ‘go bad’ and will be beyond rescue – and that’s just how it is.

Many thanks to my good friend Maria Fantasia, who has extensive experience in community and stakeholder engagement, for her input; and to Margaret Dugdale, whose Planning With Communities course I have attended, which informed this post.

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Has The Green Door Been Bolted?

Cartoon of 'Titanic' style boat labelled 'World Leaders' heading towards an iceberg labelled 'climate change' - caption: 'It's settled - we agree to sign a pledge to hold another meeting to consider changing course at a date to be determined'

Image credit: David Horsey

The Rio+20 Summit has been and gone, was largely considered a failure, and has barely registered in the consciousness of the average person. We are no closer to any co-ordinated, serious global approach to addressing sustainability at the international level than we were in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit, which set out the ‘sustainable development’ agenda (itself a contested concept among sustainability activists).

Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, called Rio+20 ‘a failure of epic proportions’ and bluntly described the 253-paragraph Summit statement as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot noted the absence of a popular movement:

It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers’ rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law.

So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

While there is an increasing number of environmental and social groups around the world doing this work – involving more people than ever before in history – it seems that Monbiot’s observation is also correct.

In many OECD nations, a combination of budget cuts, austerity measures and increasing costs of living associated with the GFC fallout appear to have diminished popular concern with environmental and sustainability issues. Data collected from the UK, US, Germany has shown that environmental issues are not top of mind for these populations, and according to a recent research report ‘What Matters to Australians’ cited in The Australian:

A study of what matters to the average Australian found environmental issues “mattered intensely” in 2007 but had dropped to being of “middling” importance today.

The resulting picture was one of a conservative society intensely concerned about day-to-day issues.

Global sustainability dropped from third in 2007 to eighth in 2010, the only category to see any big movement either up or down…tangible things such as health and family “always were and always will be the things that really matter”.

Leaving aside the not-insignificant question of what people understand by ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmental issues’, and whether or not they see connections between issues (for example, food and health issues rated as the biggest concern, and yet sustainable food systems are intricately connected to a plethora of environment/sustainability issues), it is clear that for many people, all things environmental have fallen off the radar. The report does note that the high profile around climate change 2007 may have been an aberration.

With pressing day to day concerns around cost of living, access to basic services and local crime prevention, abstract notions of invisible gases causing major atmospheric and geographical changes at some undefined point in the future are simply not the immediate worry for citizens.

Similarly, just as people do not experience ‘the economy’ – they experience availability of work, fuel and food prices and mortgage repayments – the scale at which most sustainability advocates are attempting to communicate issues is beyond the realm of many people’s experience and therefore seen to be irrelevant. If people feel no sense of agency about how their individual efforts can effect change, and if daily demands leave little spare time to contemplate, let alone plan to enact change, it simply will not be a priority for most people.

For businesses facing economic downturn, and governments facing budget cuts, any initiative that involves investing money and employee time to become more resource efficient – even if it can ultimately save them money – is off the table as organisations retreat to focusing on ‘core business’. Sustainability is still being perceived as an add-on rather than an integral part of how organisations work.

If the general public and organisations have gone into siege/survival mode, then sustainability advocates need another approach to find their way in than exuberantly flinging open the ‘green door’ carrying a basket laden with all kinds of messages about carbon, climate, energy, waste, water and efficiency.

Because by and large, the ‘Green Door’ to the wider public is bolted.

ornate green door with two padlocks

Image credit: Breno Peck

What to do?

We could start with what’s going right, what is working using an assets-based approach, rather than talking about insurmountable problems.

Then there’s the packaging – ‘sustainability’ might work better if it’s more subtle and less overt, a bit like hiding vegetables in the kids’ pasta. It might be good for them, but they’re doing it because they enjoy it, or because they identify it as meeting their needs, not because someone told them it would be good for them and/or the planet.

A cynic might say we need a Sustainability Trojan Horse – to conceal the intent in a different guise. But we really do need to start where people are, with what they value.

head of Trojan Horse tinted green

‘Sustainability? Oh no, we’re talking about how you can make your life more fun and easier right now!’

An example: an initiative developed in Australia called MamaBake was established to encourage collaborative meal making as a means to lighten the daily evening meal preparation burden on women. A group arranges to get together at a member’s home, decides what to cook, and the task happens as part of a social occasion. At the end of the session, the women divide up all the meals into portions for each family who then has a week’s worth of frozen meals on hand – not to mention a week’s worth of free evenings.

These women are not cooking in bulk, and reducing potential temptation for for time-saving but often expensive and less healthy take-away because someone told them it would be better for the environment.

They are doing it because its fun, it offers them social connection, and to turn what is a chore into an enjoyable occasion and claw back precious time during the work week.

Now MamaBake is not going to save the planet or address concerns for healthy eating and more work-life balance for families on its own – but it is a contribution, and if we identified, worked with and supported the replication of many similar initiatives, it would amount to a social shift. MamaBake groups are also a ready-made audience and social norms transmission device for talking about local food production, healthy eating, recycling and food waste, modern cloth nappies in lieu of disposables, and a whole range of other things that are captured under the sustainability umbrella.

In the broader collaborative economy, people are finding ways to meet their needs through sharing, not because it is a government policy about reducing consumption, not because sharing – and therefore needing to buy less – is good for the environment, but because it makes sense to people, allows them to meet their needs, and has been enabled by technology, the social web and the ‘currency’ of reputation.

It’s a model that can also be applied to business:

“Most business owners are currently overlooking the renting potential of their business equipment. At Open Shed we believe renting out the equipment you own, when you are not using it, creates a number of opportunities for you. It can reduce your operating costs, help you establish relationships with other businesses and customers, reduce waste and keep money in your local area,” says Lisa Fox, director and co-founder of Open Shed…other common requests by businesses that use the site include projectors, projector screens and PA equipment, which people often need for a one-off event.

Is the Blue Door of the sharing and collaborative consumption approach the one we should be knocking on? That’s where people are.

We might find that progressing sustainability could be more effective if we treated it like acupuncture – subtly channeling the flow of energy through providing a platform for encouraging the existing momentum out there – rather than the major surgery of international action that we keep putting off.

Sustainability advocates can always carry the spirit and intent of sustainability into their practice, but present it in ways that are relevant and meaningful for people. Find the door that opens for them, rather than the one we want them to enter through.

Have you had any experiences where a message couched in ‘green’ or sustainability terms has been rejected, but a similar message framed in a different way has been accepted?

What other ‘doors’ are there through which to reach people?

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