Which direction for WAI

WAI Wanaka (Water Action Initiative) is a organisation that evolved from the merging of a number of different trusts, stakeholders and initiatives – all with the objective of getting more people to consider the health of waterways in the Upper Clutha basin.

We’ve been working with WAI Wanaka since it’s inception as Upper Clutha Lakes Trust (UCLT) in 2017/2018. We’ve walked alongside as it embedded itself as a strong, science-led organisation for change: an organisation with ties to the community, to industry and local body government.

The in-house team had a vision for the type of work they wanted to engage in. It was easy enough to communicate the organisational outcomes. It was trickier to establish why the community should care about WAI’s why…

As vested stakeholders, the members of the board and the operations team were deep in the detail [and rightfully so]. Their explanation of WAI’s why centred on the science, but as a community body it also needed to connect to, well… the community.

Being on the sideline as we were, we were able to watch WAI at a distance. And just like any players on the sideline, we got a different perspective.  We saw authenticated action at WAI’s end but little change in the day-to-day awareness of those actions by residents, ratepayers and visitors to Wanaka.

The disconnect was essentially due to consistent messaging. WAI had two problems.

  • Firstly, while most environmental groups were restoring and repairing, WAI was encouraging people to proactively preserve natural waterways and habitats. The call to action wasn’t immediate. People didn’t feel like they needed to act immediately.
  • Secondly, the work WAI undertook was vast – ranging from the opening of doors at a council level to writing catchment plans for farmers, to supporting new science and the communication of outcomes. And while WAI had the ear of many, at a grassroots level, there was little traction. The messaging was just too complex.

During the process of trying to solve this communication conundrum, we (M.LAB) took the role of WAI’s grass-root audience – what would make us care? What would make us want to get involved?

The idea came from one board member telling us why they loved Wanaka’s waterways: as a child, water formed the basis of all their best memories.  That was it – water is integral to our best memories in Wanaka. It’s the snow we ski on, the lakes we swim in, the rivers and streams we play in. A simple insight was born from a few questions that sat outside the complexity.

WAI is about creating ownership of water by celebrating how we use water, through imparting good management structures and sharing good knowledge.



Working in a business or organisation every day means you likely have a detailed understanding of it, the solutions it provides and the outcomes you want. Taking that knowledge and turning it into a set of features, advantages and benefits that someone with little to no experience of what you do and care about takes distance.

Distance from the problem, distance from the knots and complications, distance from the everyday. Fresh eyes are everything when trying to work out how to tailor messages to an audience, and how to recreate a story so it is cohesive, consistent and durable.

With distance, you can identify the right direction – locate your North Star and move forward with confidence.

We’re forever grateful for the access we have had to WAI Wanaka over the years, to the board and to the operational team. It’s been our great pleasure to work with them in both a pro bono and paid capacity. We can’t wait to see what they achieve for the Upper Clutha district in years to come.