Have we reached the tipping point?

May 4, 2010

Topics: Education, Events, Marketing, Technology

The timing of the first Outdoor Nation Youth Festival & Summit in New York City is looking more auspicious by the week.

Three weeks ago President Obama kicked off America’s Great Outdoor Initiative, noting that it would  “help families spend more time outdoors, building on what the First Lady has done through the “Let’s Move” initiative to encourage young people to hike and bike and get outside more often.”

A week later at the OIA Capitol Summit, career employees and political appointees at the federal land management agencies were exploring ways to use Outdoor Nation to solicit input from youth for the initiative and recruit employees.

“We will hire 3,000 people to replace 30 to 40 percent of the work force that is eligible to retire in next four years,” one senior official with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) told one OIA delegation in Washington. “We are interested in building a cadre of young people interested in taking my job in the future.”

By the end of last week, the BLM, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service had all pledged to participate in a job fair at the summit, which will bring 500 delegates ages 18 to 30 together. The agencies could end up providing as much as $100,000 in support for Outdoor Nation over the next five years, said Christine Fanning, executive director for The Outdoor Foundation and the primary architect for Outdoor Nation. On Thursday, Confluence Watersports announced it will recruit and send five delegates to the youth summit as the paddlesports industry’s exclusive platinum sponsor of the event.

Outdoor Nation already counts The North Face as its presenting sponsor and Backpacker Magazine, Camelbak, The Coleman Company, Merrell, Smartwool and Eastern Mountain Sports have also signed on as presenting sponsors.

Much of the behind the scenes work for Outdoor Nation is being done by New York Parks and Recreation Department and mobilize.org, a non-profit devoted to developing leaders in the Millennial Generation. Since 2007, the organization has been focusing on Democracy 2.0., which aims to harness technology to empower Millennials “to build the democracy we want to inherit.” So far, it has organized youth movements and summits around the topics of climate change and helping Millennial veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Fanning became familiar with the group while working for the Steve Case Foundation, which has provided support to mobilize.org.

Since launching Outdoor Nation online last year, mobilize.org and a coalition of non-profits and outdoor companies led by The Outdoor Foundation have recruited 25 “youth ambassadors” to spearhead Outdoor Nation. Many in this group have been promoting Outdoor Nation through speaking and media engagements at schools and REI stores. Some already volunteer with civic organizations dedicated to introducing urban youth to the outdoors. (See related stories.) A small contingent attended the OR Winter Market in January as Outdoor Nation guests and some have even been dispatched to Washington D.C. by Fanning to advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation. Many ambassadors will attend the summit this summer, but the bulk of the delegates will self-nominate at outdoornation.org, which began accepting applications for 500 delegates last month. So far, about 200 kids have submitted applications, and coalition partners are confident they can collect hundreds more by the May 20 application deadline.

The Sierra Club alone expects to recruit at least 50 kids from the dozens of youth programs it works with nationwide, said Tiffany Saleh, the non-profits youth representative in California. The YMCA, the American Hiking Society, the International Mountain Biking Association, the Association of Experiential Educators and the Boy Scouts of America are among the other NGOs recruiting delegates.

“It’s an exciting time right now,” said Saleh, 29, who has spent two years working on the outreach program Building Bridges to the Outdoors. “We’ve all been working on this for a long time and things are really picking up steam now. Agencies are paying attention. We are going to start seeing talk turn into action.”

The genius of Outdoor Nation is its virtuous Millennial-led cycle.  After attending the summit, delegates will be eligible for grants either from their sponsors or a pool administered by the Outdoor Nation to foment youth participation in their communities. (See related story.) Confluence delegates will compete for a $1,250 grant from the South Carolina company.  The delegates will also serve as youth advisors and possibly powerful influencers for sponsors. Confluence Watersports, for instance, could bounce product development and marketing ideas off their Outdoor Nation panel.

Outdoor Nation may also mark an important step toward The Outdoor Foundation’s goal of attracting healthcare, technology and entertainment companies to a broad coalition of industries promoting the health benefits of the outdoor lifestyle. Both Johnson & Johnson and CIGNA are supporting Outdoor Nation, which will culminate Sunday in six breakout sessions, or “tracks,” where delegates will discuss health and active lifestyles, outdoor careers, diversity, recreation and education, media and culture and service.

Long a sponsor of marathons, cycling teams and other outdoor sporting events, the healthcare industry seems poised to prescribe exercise as a bigger part of the solution to rising obesity rates. Just last month,  UnitedHealthcare announced it would begin paying local YMCA’s to deliver an obesity prevention program developed in concert with the National Institutes of Health in according with how much they each could help patients lower their weight.

“We may be at a tipping point,” said Fanning, noting that it’s been four years since the Richard Louv’s seminal book “Last Child in the Woods” was published. “Outdoor Nation is a way for CEOs to start thinking about investing in the next generation of outdoor industry executives and launching programs to support youth in the outdoors. How are they doing their own listening tour of young people they have in their stores, on their staffs and in their communities so we can engage the next generation? We can all build an Outdoor Nation.”