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Amplifing our mission in a downmarket

February 19 2009 | Jim's Blog,
by Jim

The looming question for me since arriving at Surfrider Foundation has been "how can we amplify our mission?" This points to a host of other questions.

How can we shift coastal cultures toward having a conservation orientation? How can we achieve real, relevant and understandable victories around the world? How can we help drive meaningful and enforceable policy changes? How can we scale?

With this post, I'm going to share part of our thinking on how we are "re-wiring" this organization, our chapters and our very approach to address these questions.


Large shifts are taking place in real time. There is no doubt our society has sped up and people are increasingly connected to each other. I believe the most relevant shifts as related to our mission include:
  • Severe economic downturn
  • Escalating challenges on our coastal environment
  • Mainstream acceptance/proliferation of social and related networks
These three things net out to my belief--more strongly than ever--that we must do more with less. We must understand these shifts as they are happening and alter our approach to maximize our impact and success.

Our environment is under siege and there is less money available to address that challenge. I will focus this post on why this shift can be not only a savvy economic choice but also an amplifier of our mission.

The very core of the Surfrider Foundation is our grassroots network of volunteer activists. When you pull everything else back, that is the essence of this organization. We are a network of people who act on behalf of our coasts.

Evolving networks, especially social networks, are an excellent compliment to this existing grassroots on-ground network. The combination of these forces can amplify our mission, accelerate our victories and attract net new participants to the movement.

Human beings have an innate desire to connect and communicate.

People need to communicate, share and trade ideas. They want to belong to causes that fulfill a desire in them to have a meaningful life. Various kinds of networks over the years have fulfilled these needs.

On one hand, I think many of us over reach when we talk about things like social networks. They aren't anything new. They are extensions of the networks (social, business, etc) that have existed for decades (special-interest groups, college fraternities, music fan groups, political or religious affiliations, etc). They aren't even "new" in terms of the internet. I remember being part of an email-based Grateful Dead tape trading network in the early 90s. What is happening now is simply a natural extension of what existed before.

On the other hand, it's almost non-negotiable that the internet HAS simply changed everything. The internet has changed the way we communicate; it has changed the way we learn; it has changed the way we interact with the arts; it has changed the way we spend our days. Perhaps a more accurate phrase is that it is "changing" those things. This is happening in real time, right now.

Surfrider Foundation started the chapter network decades ago. We embraced listserves years ago. We were one of the early players on MySpace and we're nurturing our force on Facebook.

The principle here is that we are not embracing ________(fill in the blank with any specific new site or technology). Rather, we have always believed that networks compliment our 25 year-old on-ground chapter network.

It's worth taking a step back to look at history. More than 230 years ago the United States was formed. Over that time period, the population has grown to more than 300 million people.

Facebook has reached 240 million people in five years.

If we are going to find and attract like-minded people, we need to be where there are a lot of people. Thus, living where people live defaults us to networks like Facebook. Facebook isn't the only game in town but, like most things, there are leaders. At this point in time a few networks bubble to the top, when those change...we'll change.

There is a physical world compliment to living where people live. We need to be (physically) where people are. Today, we have 70 physical chapters in the United States and another 20 outside the US. We can't expect everyone to drive more than 5 or 10 miles out of their way for a chapter meeting or event. Sure, many will, but more won't. We need to be aware of the "friction" in the ask. Asking someone to drive 40 miles or asking them to register for one more website may simply be too much to ask. Instead, offering events all over a region and offering people ways to plug into sites of which they are already part, are low-friction asks. In this way, we ensure our success.

This is one of the reasons we will be pushing more and more of our content out via RSS feeds , widgets/gadgets and cross-site content promotions. This will help us get in front of people without the (dated) assumption that they will come to our chapter meeting or the Surfrider.org website. As I mentioned above, these things are happening in real time. Today there are over 100 sites (chapter sites, campaign sites, program sites, blogs, etc) that operate under Surfrider Foundation's mission.

An extension of the idea of living where people "live" is talking to them about what they want to talk about. I touched on this idea a few days ago in my photography as an onramp to activism blog post. What I mean by this, is taking the time to know what people are interested in...and THEN taking time to figure out how that can be used to leverage our mission. For a metaphor, look at Amazon or Netflix, I'd argue the most valuable part of both companies is their respective search engine which optimizes users' preferences. They know that you like action films before you search (based on past behavior) so they can accurately recommend other titles for you to rent or buy. This, alongside a near endless selection, makes them exponentially better than stores selling similar product in a mall. We must take the time to understand the interests of volunteers so we don't ask the person who loves to clean up beaches to take on a policy issue. We need to take people's objections off the table. We need to guide their interaction with our mission something to become something personal, fulfilling and joyful.

When everything aligns (excellent physical location, perfect time of the day, vibrant and understandable cause, motivational desire and personal bent) a volunteer can get 20 signatures per hour on a petition. This is great. It's face-to-face, builds local awareness, enables two-way dialog, etc. The challenge is that it's quite hard to scale. It's impossible to have a set of local volunteers ever acquire 20,000 signatures.

Online, it's a different story. The actual cadence may actually be very close to 20 signatures per hour but it goes day and night, day after day and week after week. A recent initiative regarding offshore drilling gained 20,000 signatures over 40 days (another delivered 10,000 signatures in a week). That's high-speed activism.

The traditional view has been that a hand-written letter (or some form of in-person interaction) exceeds the value of an email or 'net-based signature. We are hearing that this is becoming a thing of the past while politicians and others are simply looking for the actual number, the tonnage behind an idea or issue.

Look at the chart below. Previously, we called certain types of organizations "brick and mortar." What we meant by that term was that they literally were based and built with atoms (bricks and mortar) and not bits (online). They built buildings with bricks; they increased their sales by hiring another salesperson; they delivered more mail by buying another truck. The core challenge with this model is that it's growth is tied to an (approximately) linear investment in more resources. This was our world until the mid 1990s.

With the dawn of the browser a new era was created. Soon a myriad of new types of organizations and businesses were born. Some of these leveraged atom-based resources such as regional distribution centers (Amazon, Netflix) and others were completely virtual (Wikipedia, Facebook). Both camps have characteristics that define them. These are important to understand as they are keys to where and how much investment should be made to maximize impact on a mission.

Historically, the Surfrider Foundation had an "atom based" foundation (staff, activists, chapters, board of directors). We experienced the challenge of scaling. To add new chapters we had to add incremental regional staff. To reach more people we had to invest more to print more paper newsletters, etc.

As we compliment our organization with things that are "bit-based" we're starting to see things scale. For example, a coastal development video was posted on the front page of YouTube on a Friday and by Sunday night 500,000 people had seen it. Saatchi and Saatchi intentionally created the video to become viral. The core message dealt directly with one of our core tenets philosophically while complementing our tangible realities of coastal development campaigns in Florida, New York, Washington and overseas. The viral video that half a million people saw connected to real campaigns in which we're engaged.

A key piece to initiatives like these is that the the incremental cost to scale is (very close to) zero. Whether one person sees a video or 500,000 people see it, our cost is the same. In this economy...in any economy...that matters.

Add to this the ability to leverage "real world" initiatives and things become an even better return on investment. I spoke at Google a few months ago to about 50 people. Since that day another thousand watched the video online (with no incremental ask on my time or resources). This blog is in the same vein. I type once...people from all over the world read it. Is this blog a decent use of my time? Look at the map of visitors to the right. How else could I possibly reach those people let alone share this deep of a subject with them? If you have other options please email me at jim@surfrider.org. We're open to any vehicle we can leverage toward our mission.

As we look forward we need to understand the tools at our disposal. We need to understand the landscape as the landscape shifts.

We must approach both our on-ground and our online networks with a deep understanding of their mutual nuances, leverage points and downsides.

We need to understand the return on investment from one set of tools vs. another and how various crowds overlap with each other. A data point: we have 50,000 people on our action network database and close to 60,000 in our (current) membership database. Only 20% overlap between these two groups. These kinds of stats start to illustrate the value in working with various networks and leveraging them toward the mission.

We must create a culture that leverages EVERY toolset to it's maximum potential when aimed at our mission of the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches.
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