On a recent weekday in Rockland the fourth floor of the Island Institute was buzzing, filled with electricians from 14 islands and coastal towns. They attended a one-day workshop hosted by the Island Institute to learn about how to install energy monitors in the homes and schools participating in Energy for ME, a National Science Foundation funded program that will assist teachers in integrating energy curriculum into the classroom while getting students excited about related careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

While the Island Institute wrote and competed for the grant that will fund this work over the next three years, the idea for Energy for ME is not the Island Institute’s alone. Instead it is the product of years of discussions between the staff at the Island Institute and island educators, electric cooperative rate payers, and others about what types of work could be done to lower energy costs, ultimately making island communities more sustainable.

This approach to developing our organizational priorities focused on listening and sharing ideas, has lead to significant growth within the Island Institute over the years. In fact, we have doubled in size over the past eight years, from a $2.1 million to a $4.6 million organization with 42 staff. This is tremendous growth that begs the question, how much larger could or should the Island Institute become?

Islanders throughout the U.S. and around the world are interested in sharing ideas about island community sustainability. Leaders from Alaskan islands, the San Juans in Washington, Core Sound and the Outer Banks, U.S. Virgin Islands, Maritime Canadian islands, and remote coastal communities the world over know about the innovations that have emerged from Maine’s island communities and they want to share their experiences and learn about the solutions that Maine islanders have developed.

There is simply no other organization better equipped to facilitate this discussion than the Island Institute. But how should we, as an organization, prepare ourselves to take this on?

One option that I don’t favor would be to branch out and create offices with staff along other archipelagos to make this discussion possible. An approach to growth where we, as a Maine-based organization, are underwriting staff based in other archipelagos would be antithetical to what has made us successful. It would take resources and focus away from Maine islands. Furthermore, it would require a centralized national or global office with centralized priority setting. This would likely lead to a loss of local focus and the close personal relationships that we depend on to help us understand the changing needs of the communities we serve. In short we would become irrelevant.

Another option to grow the island sustainability discussion is to provide services to other archipelagos and use the revenue to subsidize our work in Maine. This is something we have already done successfully in small test cases. In one instance, we placed Island Fellows on Fishers Island in New York, where the community paid the full cost of programming plus an additional fee that is reinvested in the Maine Island Fellows program. In a more recent example, we are contracting with fisheries NGOs around the U.S. to support working waterfront preservation efforts and local seafood marketing and branding efforts. In each case we are consultants and the benefit to Maine islands flow from what we learn and bring back to Maine islands through our publications and through hosting information sharing forums where we bring representatives from other islands and remote coastal communities to share their work with Maine’s island leaders.

Still another option could take the form of replicating aspects of our organization. The Working Waterfront news is the best candidate for such an approach. We could create a “newspaper in a box” of sorts and sell the intellectual property wrapped up in the business model while selling services from our publishing department to other non-profit publishing departments. The editor function of a “Gulf Coast Working Waterfront” would necessarily be local, but drawing on the example above, we could help with layout and design from our offices in Maine. This model would allow island and remote coastal communities to share ideas across a state or region while having an amplified and sustained voice in policy forums.

Another option for growth that we are thinking about draws on the open source movement. In this model, we could push knowledge of island sustainability out to the world from Maine as a way to entice islanders of the world to share their ideas with leaders here. We already have an Island Institute YouTube channel where people from around the United States are learning about how Maine island communities use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology in local planning processes. Teachers in the Southern U.S. are viewing technology education curricula that are hosted on our website. The information is getting out there and the response is exciting. There are numerous examples of island teachers traveling from Maine to other archipelagos, who are sought out to be part of discussions with island teachers elsewhere.

How do we get feedback from those who are using this information that could improve the methods that have been pioneered in Maine? And, how do we ensure that we can demonstrate the value of these discussions to island residents in Maine? After all, we would be creating discussions and generating revenue based on knowledge that was created in partnership with island residents. It is not ours alone.

The ultimate shape the next phase of our growth takes will inevitably draw on an intersection of all these approaches. However, we will not necessarily be creating a much larger organization. Instead, we will be using emerging technology and the business practices to sustain a larger discussion that ensures that Maine islands have access to the best information from islands around the world about how best to sustain their communities.

Rob Snyder is executive vice-president of the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine.