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10 lessons learned in 10 years of CliMates

CliMates is a think-and-do tank run by young volunteers around the world with the goal of empowering the climate generation to demand more from state actors when it comes to fighting the climate crisis.

CliMates was born in France in 2011, making this year its 10th birthday. As a relatively new member of the CliMates team, I thought I could offer a fresh perspective on all the amazing things CliMates has done and become in this time. The world has changed enormously since 2011 and it seems that the CliMates community has too; here are 10 things we’ve learned in 10 years.

1. Resourcefulness is key

When CliMates was first starting out, there was a real sense of excitement, pride and motivation : Mates were sure that their association was based on a unique idea and that it would lead to great things.

However, they had to be resourceful: starting where they were, using what they had and doing what they could. They held their first meetings in student apartments and worked hard to squeeze time into their busy student schedules to work on building .

This entrepreneurial energy continues to filter through the association today - CliMates is a safe space for young people to try new things and to have a go at creating real change.

Being ambitious, inventive and willing to try something new has meant that CliMates has been able to make a real impact in a short space of time!

2. Our community is our biggest asset

As an organisation run primarily by volunteers, nothing is more important than our community and ensuring that it is a fun, engaging and exciting group to belong to.

The CliMates Community and Skills (CCS) team do an incredible job of welcoming new volunteers and offering a wide-range of opportunities for Mates to harness their skills.

They also organise opportunities for Mates to meet and work together in person. Our monthly Clim’Drinks, in which Mates get together over a drink to discuss a certain topic (recent examples include: possible career paths, updates from our International Mates and exciting details on the CliMates International Summit) as well as our Clim’Weekends are both brilliant initiatives that allow Mates time to bounce ideas around and inspire each other.

As such, the CliMates community is incredibly close-knit, many ex-Mates stay in touch and the volunteers really are friends above all else, which means that our network is both strong and convivial. More than anything, we have to maintain our volunteers’ excitement and passion for CliMates in order to keep the association moving forward.

3. International communities are made up of strong local communities

Although the climate crisis is one that has the potential to affect us all, we know that not all communities around the world will experience it in the same way.

The CliMates community is made up of a number of international branches and although we’re all united by the common goal of empowering the climate generation, we will absolutely have different priorities and methods for achieving this. Everyone is the expert on their own community and lived experiences!

4. It’s okay to change your mind !

In fact, that’s what makes CliMates so resilient. CliMates is an association that is in constant flux, with an entrepreneurial energy and a willingness to change course.

In the last few years, CliMates has altered its target audience, governance structure, and even how it organises its poles, all the while staying committed to its wider goals.

While these are certainly not small things to restructure, it’s also certainly not a criticism! Being able to see that there might be better ways of achieving our goals has meant that CliMates has been able to stay relevant and effective in the work that it does.

5. How to managing the distance

In 2015, CliMates opened its first international branch - CliMates Mali - and its second - CliMates Nepal - in 2017.

This period saw many changes for CliMates in terms of how it operated and communicated both internally, between the branches, and externally, with regards to maintaining a coherent narrative and image.

For the team based in France, this meant that more English was being spoken in the office and the team also had to adjust to ‘télétravail’ - managing time zones of more an five hours difference and also trying to maintain the fluidity and feeling of closeness you experience when working together in person.

6. Having employees, interns and services civiques is essential

Paying people for their work is an objectively good thing to do but often paid employees, interns, apprentices and services civiques all have their own responsibilities, expectations and approaches to CliMates - which can sometimes stand in contrast to those of volunteers, who might be working less often but more flexibly.

However, over the years we’ve found that these roles - really help to maintain the grass-roots and can-do attitude of the volunteers by taking the more logistical tasks and obstacles out of the way.

7. €€€ changes the stakes

For almost a year, CliMates has been a proud recipient of funding from the European Commission Development, Education and Awareness Raising programme.

This has been a real game-changer for us and has given us: our first big multi-year budget, our first full-time permanent employee, collaboration with 20 European associations and a real possibility to grow the association and invest in exciting projects.

We’re still establishing how we want to manage our money, but many lessons have been learned, habits formed and skills developed, including recrutement, impact measurement and learning to work within certain constraints.

8. How to manage the press

As far as associations go, CliMates has a fairly large press presence. Certainly, a significant percentage of this came around 2019, when CliMates changed its tactics and shifted towards being more accessible to a larger and more diverse audience, who may not necessarily already be experts on climate action.

As such, CliMates had to make tough decisions on what its official stances were, what sort of image it wanted to project and who it wanted to be associated with.

Learning how to navigate this is an ongoing project for any organisation, so we must always be ready to ask ourselves what our goals are and how we can achieve them.

9. Remain focused but let people do what they want

We’re all working towards a common goal, certainly, but as individual volunteers, we all have our own interests, values and needs. As such, CliMates loves to provide a supportive environment for Mates’ to run their own projects and to also allow volunteers to get involved in multiple projects and tasks at once.

As volunteers, you decide how much time you want to invest, what you want to do and when you want to work. CliMates has a real ‘can-do’ attitude which has been essential to its success and is what makes it such a great association to be a part of.

10. Change goes both ways

To summarise, so many of the lessons learned in the last 10 years have been learned in response to specific events - internal and external alike.

CliMates is part of an ecosystem, made up of its volunteers and partners as well as its geographical and political context.

That is to say that as much as the association is trying to evoke change in its surroundings, it can also be changed significantly by external events.

The Marches pour le Climat in 2019 is a notable example as it really forced CliMates to ask itself some big questions : which groups do we want to be affiliated with? What is our approach to protests? How do we want to manage our presence in the press?

There are, of course, many more events that have changed the direction CliMates has taken, but the main lesson to be taken away is that while some circumstances are outside of our control, they can help us to be more effective and efficient in our work.

And there we have it - 10 lessons we’ve learned in our 10 years. Special thank you to Alice and Martial for revealing a great deal about CliMates’ history and to all the current Mates who have contributed to this article !

Hello ! My name is Eleanor and since April 2021, I have been “en service civique” at CliMates, working primarily on the association’s 10 year anniversary projects. I am based in Paris, France but I grew up in the UK.

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