Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
The Water Environment Federation focuses its conference community service initiatives squarely on its mission, lending a hand with local water projects in host cities.
Many associations put together community service events in the cities where they hold their annual conferences. But at the Water Environment Federation, which represents water quality professionals, those events flow directly out of its mission.
Since 2008, WEF’s student and young professional members have used its largest event, WEFTEC, to lend a hand with a water-related project in the host city, targeting challenges unique to each site. Last year in New Orleans, for instance, 200 volunteers helped construct a drainage system at a community center in the city’s Treme neighborhood. The finished project distributed water to a native-plant garden to reduce flooding in the surrounding area during storms. In Chicago in 2017, more than 150 volunteers completed a similar project at a local elementary school.
Because the conference currently rotates between New Orleans and Chicago, WEF has been able to address issues unique to those cities, says Megan M. Livak, WEF’s student and young professional manager.
“New Orleans is incredibly vulnerable to flooding, especially with rising sea levels. So we really like to focus on storm water management and green infrastructure projects,” she says. “We wanted to continue the trend in Chicago because Chicago also has a lot of flooding issues. It was really about leaving the host community better than we found it.”
Under Livak’s guidance, students and young professional members handle nearly all the planning for each year’s service project. Multiple subcommittees work on generating RFPs for projects, as well as design, logistics, marketing, and fundraising. The process takes up an entire year. “We start planning the next year’s project the day after we get back from WEFTEC,” Livak says.
Within WEF, the projects are skill-builders for its young and new professional members. (WEF defines that as those under 35 or with less than five years of experience in the industry.)
“It gives students and young professionals the opportunity to be project managers because they’re leading the project,” Livak says. “So it’s a really great way for them to grow as leaders and then take on other leadership roles, not only within their community and their jobs, but also within WEF.”
But improving the cities where WEF visits is the ultimate goal, and the volunteer corps for each project includes members from the local community as well as WEF members. “It’s really about teaching the community about the importance of water and teaching them about their infrastructure,” Livak says. “We want to say that this is important, this is big stuff, that water is life.”