The Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan, which aims to bring a healthy, sustainable food system to the community, is also notable for the multiorganizatiion collaboration that went into its development and implementation. (Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan photo)

The Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan is notable not only for its commitment to bring a healthy, sustainable food system to the community but also for the manner in which the program was conceived. It’s an example of what can happen when thought leaders are connected and collaborating.

This is a core concept of Leading from Within, a local nonprofit organization that has connected 300 social-sector leaders since its inception eight years ago, advancing leadership and effecting measurable change in the community.

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“Amazing ideas can form when people are brought together who know each other and trust each other,” said Sigrid Wright, CEO of the Community Environmental Council and one of the masterminds behind the Food Action Plan.

Wright credits her experiences at Leading from Within as instrumental in the development of a countywide program that aims to establish an accessible, sustainable, healthy food system that benefits residents, the economy and the environment.

Wright is a graduate of Leading from Within’s first Courage to Lead cohort class, having completed the year-long leadership and renewal program eight years ago.

After graduating, she chaired the organization’s alumni network, which is where she met Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. Talkin participated in the 2011 Courage to Lead cohort class, along with Barbara Andersen, previous director of strategic partnerships at the Orfalea Foundation and now chief strategist officer at the Santa Barbara Foundation.

This trifecta would prove critical to the formation of the Food Action Plan.

“The CEC was already exploring the impact of climate change on growing and transporting food when Erik approached me with the challenge of working together to find more effective solutions for allocating food to benefit individuals and the environment,” Wright explained.

A critical mass of leaders who shared the same mission quickly formed and included Andersen and Sharyn Main, director of community investments at the Santa Barbara Foundation. Main is also spearheading her organization’s LEAF (Landscapes, Ecosystems, Agriculture and Food) initiative, whose mission closely aligns with the Food Action Plan.

“Leading from Within provides a different framework for people to work together,” Talkin said.

Typically, the challenge of collective impact work is that various organizations are vying for limited funds, creating competition, not cohesion.

“The Leading from Within model is distinct in that it brings leaders together for the greater good of the community,” Talkin said. “There’s an inherent trust and shared work ethic among Leading from Within alumni.”

Talkin admits there’s no magic formula.

“This also happened to be the right people at the right time who are emotionally invested and passionate about the cause,” he said. “Leading from Within gave us the opportunity to bring a wide variety of people together, which creates considerable possibility.”

Talkin has demonstrated his commitment to Leading From Within by sending most of his senior staff through the Courage to Lead program, and encouraging all of his staff to apply to the Emerging Leaders program.

“To have this type of network available to nonprofit leaders in Santa Barbara is extremely valuable to our entire community,” he said.

“It’s an unusual model to have nonprofits and funders tackling a project together,” Wright conceded. “Many of us had been through the Courage to Lead or Emerging Leaders programs where we formed a trust that enabled us to work together.”

Andersen also emphasized the trust factor.

“The Courage to Lead program breaks down the barriers between funder and grantee, by creating an honest, safe space to interact,” she explained.

“There’s very powerful trust building that happens at Courage to Lead, and participants protect that space outside the circle as well, allowing leaders to have even more honesty and transparency, ultimately benefiting the communities we serve.”

Ken Saxon, president of Leading from Within, takes a long view.

“Our community benefits when our leaders are connected,” he said.

Saxon’s organization was created to support, train and bring social sector leaders together, not only for their personal gain but to increase their capacity to be collaborators for the common good.

These few organizations were not the only collaborators. Wright estimates a total of 1,900 volunteer hours went into developing the Food Action Plan, and input from 200 community stakeholders across the county was incorporated in the strategic plan.

“Look how we create a thinking network of people,” she said. “The (LFW) program trusts that by bringing emerging leaders together, without friction or competition, that great things can happen.”

Saxon agreed.

“There is so much power in partnerships,” he said. “Imagine what other community issues local leaders could tackle together with this kind of trusted foundation.”

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— Ann Pieramici is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. She currently handles public relations efforts for a number of Santa Barbara-area nonprofit organizations.