When the Surfrider Foundation set out to look for the fifth heir to its environmental throne in 2004, they tossed out the green rule-book and hired a tech entrepreneur. James Moriarty, a Solana Beach local, would provide the unconventional leadership Surfrider needed. Jim was among numerous candidates selected by a D.C.-based recruiter specializing in finding unconventional leaders for nonprofits. Despite lacking in either nonprofit or environmental activism experience, Surfrider’s Board of Directors was impressed by Jim’s creativity and technological vision for the organization. He had founded a number of technology startups and held executive roles at multinational organizations including SAP, Pandesic, and One Touch. With over 15 years of managerial experience and expertise in the areas of e-learning, e-commerce, and infrastructure software, Jim was the clear choice in evaluating the organization’s structure and taking Surfrider to the next level.
The New Environmentalism
Surfrider is no stranger to paradigm shifts. Established in 1984 by a group of local Malibu surfers, including founders Glenn Hening, Lance Carson and Tom Pratte presumed that funding would come easily from the surfing industry. Although Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard was quick to respond with a hefty donation, the rest of the industry turned a blind eye viewing Surfrider, in Glenn’s words, “like a charity of convenience.” In 1991, then president Dr. Gordon LaBedz took a cue from his involvement with the Sierra Club and transformed Surfrider from a staff-driven fundraising organization to a volunteer, grassroots based group. And thus emerged the first local Surfrider chapters. Coinciding with a $5.8 million landmark victory against Humboldt County pulp mills, Surfrider quickly grew from five to 45 chapters. The victory would thrust Surfrider into the grassroots activism spotlight with then Vice President Al Gore praising the organization as “the symbol of the new environmentalism.”
Your grandmother’s environmental group, Surfrider was not. Rather, the organization was taking on an undeniable allure coinciding with the rise in popularity of the beach culture. Young, hip local chapters began to proliferate. More critically, they began to thrive creating and pushing programs at the grassroots level rather than being centralized at the national office. Among these programs included The Blue Water Task Force aimed at testing water quality of local breaks. Respect the Beach was an educational program aimed at raising awareness among the youth. By 1995, the organization comprised of 20,000 members across 28 national chapters and affiliates in two foreign countries.
However, the Surfrider, which Jim inherited, was approaching its terminal velocity under the existing infrastructure. His goal, embodied in Surfrider’s strategic plan, was to grow membership beyond 100,000 and rack 150 victories by 2010. To achieve this, he brought to bear his extensive experience managing nimble, yet large multinational technology companies. While the autonomy of local chapters had served the organization well, there had to be a conscious effort to leverage the sheer amounts of knowledge and experience accumulated both from within and without the organization. This meant effective communication across chapters and the global office. It also meant that the organization would engage in a public awareness campaign sparing no advertising channel for consideration from conventional advertising to guerilla marketing through internet social networking to industry manufacturer support. Surfrider would not only expand its appeal to environmentalists in general, regardless of whether they surfed, it would revisit efforts to gain support from the same manufacturers that once considered it a convenience. This was game on.
Two recent victories were particularly symbolic of the direction in which Surfrider was headed. Earlier this year, Surfrider scored a high profile win by closing a legal loop-hole regarding the use of motorized personal watercraft in the Monterrey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. To the chagrin of a few local tow-in surfers, the win restricted the use of these watercraft. Although an exception was made for Mavericks from December through February and during high-surf advisories, the victory made clear that Surfrider sees itself as an environmental group first and foremost. Last year’s victory against the Foothill / Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency prevented the extension of a toll road that could have destroyed Trestles. The “Save Trestles” campaign saw the biggest names in the surfing industry coming out in droves to support the cause – a stark contrast to the cold reception Surfrider received when it first opened its doors.
Mr. Mojo Risin’
Today, Surfrider has 56,000 members across 70 national chapters in the United States and Puerto Rico in addition to affiliates in Europe, Australia, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. Tribal Surf had the opportunity to catch up with Jim, to provide insight as to what it took to get here and where Surfrider is headed in the future.
Tribal Surf (TS): Can you describe your reaction to that initial call from Dan Sherman (the D.C.-based recruiter) and the events that subsequently transpired?
Jim Moriarty (JM): It came from far outside my periphery. I knew of and had been a member of Surfrider Foundation for years but the idea of me taking the helm of the organization wasn’t remotely in my mind of possibilities. Dan Sherman and the Board of Directors had distilled down the characteristics they were looking for so in their eyes I made sense … but I didn’t have that intelligence so it just seemed like a call out of the blue. I took the invitation to meet with the board because I loved the brand, idea and mission behind Surfrider. If you were called by one of your favorite organizations and asked if you wanted to address the board, you’d probably go. I went.
TS: When you took the reigns as Executive Director, what were some of the obvious areas of improvement and how were those areas addressed?
JM: I came from for-profit technology companies and now work at a non-profit environmental organization, those cultures and missions are very different … with one notable exception; both seek to change the world. In the first days here there were some no-brainer areas to change; all staff got on Skype my first day, I started a blog my second day, and we identified the issues that the everyday coastal resident had no idea of, and what the Foundation did on a daily basis (thus the push to establish the “150 coastal victories by 2010” metric). Beyond a host of these kinds of smaller, tactical changes, it probably took me a year to get my head around what was needed and the shift that needed to happen.
TS: Surfrider’s current membership base of 56,000, while impressive by any standard, represents a tiny fraction of the estimated two million surfers nationally. Do you view this as a significant growth opportunity or as a disconnection between surfers and environmentalism?
JM: There are a few different angles into this question. One is, “How many people are engaged with Surfrider’s mission (regardless of classification)?” And another is, “Is there a disconnect between surfers and environmentalism?” For the first question, one needs to look at how many people are engaged on all fronts. We have 100,000 people on our Facebook page, twice as many people that meet the paid-membership-in-the-last-twelve-months category (56,000). My sense is that there are a solid 200,000 – 300,000 people that are “engaged” with our mission at some level. We are very intentional about the various levels of engagement. We want hundreds of thousands of friends or fans. Being a fan or friend is a low-friction ask. These people act as a pool to draw tens of thousands activists from for any given issue, this second level is a higher-friction ask. Asking someone to friend you on a social network is easy. Asking a person to show up at an offshore drilling hearing is asking a lot. One group feeds into the other and when it’s humming the flow is seamless and happens in real time. For example it took us a week or so to get 20,000 people to sign an offshore drilling related petition. But signing a petition isn’t enough in our world, those tens of thousands feed into a group of activists, locals all over the world, who physically show up and engage on issues.
My answer to the second question mirrors what I’d say about society at large. Five years ago, surfers were not engaged at all on environmental issues, neither was the general public. Today both groups are more engaged. I think it’s a bit cliché to suggest surfers are individualists to the point they won’t engage. Look at the thousands that showed up in Del Mar last year to quadruple the record set for a California Coastal Commission hearing. Those hearings clearly don’t have a draw that compares with surfing … yet surfers came because the issue was personal and they were given a way to plug into it.
TS: If Surfrider were to continue to grow, it may need a far larger potential membership base than surfers alone. Are you at all concerned of alienating the core membership by opening up the organization to people that, in the words of Glenn Hening, “haven’t been inside the logo”?
JM: Our mission is the “… protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people …” That is not a mission that is exclusive to surfers. It does not simply say, “protect waves” because we know it’s the larger, thriving ecosystem that makes a wave great. When I read our mission I see it applying to all the people that live along coastlines. Our mission applies to EVERY one that loves the beach, every gender, every age, and every nationality and every political persuasion. I love Glenn’s reference to being inside the logo, but I simply think of those people as a sub-group within the larger target market (and a lucky group of people as most surfers I interact with don’t spend lots of time inside a barrel).
TS: The recent victory at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary sent a very clear message that Surfrider is an environmental organization first. How was the organization able to balance its mission with the interests of its core constituents?
JM: We are an environmental organization as our mission suggests, but I like to think of our perspective on the mission as one being “from the water.” If you’re a free diver, surfer or snorkeler … you have a unique perspective on ecosystems. It’s one thing to read about nature in a book or see it on TV and a completely different and visceral thing to experience it firsthand.
The win at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary wasn’t as challenging as it may seem, as we are talking about protection measures for a national marine sanctuary. The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place with stunning imagery and vistas … but I’m guessing there won’t be a Supercross competition through the middle of it.
We love all kinds of water sports; there are tow-in pros on our team. This specific issue was about a federal park that happened to be in the ocean.
TS: Scaling must be a huge issue for Surfrider. Ensuring a consistent brand message, leveraging accumulated knowledge, effectively communicating across the organization, all while allowing local chapters the autonomy to remain nimble.
JM: This is, in my opinion, THE largest issue we have faced, are facing and will continue to face. This challenge can be parsed apart. The challenge of brand consistency and mission alignment is, oddly enough, not one we spend a large amount of time on. That is, we don’t act as a “mission cop” too many hours of the month. The real challenge is how do we embrace models like Napster (regional, distributed intelligence and value) and Wikipedia (crowd-sourcing, leveraging our grassroots network) and Facebook (meeting with people already live, merging joy and fun with work). If I had to distill down the area I spend more time on than any other, it’s this one.
TS: When Surfrider had just been formed and initially approached the big surf companies, aside from Patagonia, their response was less than favorable. When it rallied to save Trestles, the list of supporters read like a who’s who of the surfing industrial complex. Is this a harbinger of things to come?
JM: It’s a bit misleading to think that the surf industry didn’t support us before the Trestles fight because they did. Paul Naude who runs Billabong has been a force for supporting environmental organizations like ours for decades. Dick Baker, Chairman of SIMA, was very plugged into our organization, staff and mission. The industry as a whole has been plugging into various initiatives over the years. I think things stepped up a level for a few reasons; the recent massive culture shift toward environmental issues, a two-way marketing partnership attitude and Trestles. More and more with every passing day I think we all understand the value of healthy oceans, waves and beaches. We understand that we need to invest with our time, energy and money to ensure a worthy environmental legacy.
TS: Between social networking and viral marketing, the vast channels of advertising can be baffling. What can we expect from Surfrider to keep its name front and foremost among activists?
JM: By all means necessary.
I believe in testing everything, engaging with anything and then investing in those efforts or channels that perform the best. For example we were early on MySpace and Facebook, now we have a person who spends half her day dedicated to nurturing and pruning our presence on these and other social networks. Social networks will grow for the next few years and then probably mutate into something else. For now we’re there for a reason, we seek to be relevant where people live. It took the United States 200 years to get to 200,000,000 people. It took Facebook five years. All this said, it would be wrong to read this as “Surfrider bets on Facebook” as we’re not, we’re betting on EVERY network-enabling tool/service we can find. It’s never about a given technology, but rather it’s always about what that solution enables and intersecting with people’s personal habits and interests.
TS: In the current economic environment, all the advertising in the world (assuming one could afford it) may still find increasingly cash conscious individuals hard pressed to make a donation. What are some non-monetary things activists can do to further the Surfrider cause?
JM: It’s funny how much importance we all give money. Money truly isn’t the most precious thing in a person’s life, time is. What we want more than anything is for people to connect with our mission and then find a way to plug into that mission in a way that isn’t work for them. They may be really into digital photography or the science of coastal infrastructure projects … we can plug people into a lot of different categories because we have chapters all over the globe, we have special interest groups that focus on narrowly-defined projects and we have a whole lot of fun events that fuel the rest of the Surfrider engine. The question is, “Do you believe in our mission?” Do you believe in the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches for all people? If the answer is yes, check out a chapter meeting. Check out the various websites and blogs, find a way to plug in.
TS: I know I speak for most when I say, “Thank you for the work that you do.” It truly is one thing to be concerned and an entirely different thing to act upon it. The people that make up the Surfrider Foundation act upon it every day.
JM: What I tell most people is this. Life is short. Take a step back and understand what’s really important to you. Understand what you love. Once you do you should then understand that you’ll get back more than you give when you plug into whatever that is. That might be something outside of Surfrider Foundation, that’s fine. If our mission intersects with you, join us. We are people just like you and we’re making a real, tangible difference.
It is only through supporters that the Surfrider Foundation can fight the battles that face our oceans, waves and beaches. When you donate, join or renew your membership, you are helping the Surfrider Foundation confront water pollution, beach access, beach loss and other serious concerns facing your beach. Learn more about how you can support the cause.
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