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State of the Union

October 24 2008 | Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I like things that deliver beyond the expected in terms of the number of people they reach.

For example, I recently gave a presentation to about 50 people; that same presentation has now been seen by almost 900 people.

So it's in that spirit that I share a presentation I'm giving today in Brazil at our International Conference.

It's 10 slides with huge fonts (Kawasaki school of PPT).

The presentation starts off at a high level, with three slides about the world we live in and the characteristics of that world. The next three slides talk about Surfrider's unique, leveragable strengths. The presentation concludes with three slides about the future of the Surfrider idea.

The world is flat. I'm not going to argue whether that's a good thing or a bad thing but, rather state it as an assumption under which we must operate. What this means is that the sense of distance is, in many ways, gone. Tonight I'll talk with my family face-to-face via Skype video. Free. We'll be more than 6,000 miles from one another.

For Surfrider it means that gross polluting pulp mills in Australia, Chile and Peru can share resources and expertise. To look past this simple yet potent characteristic is to not just to leave a toolset on the table, it's worse... it would be giving our opponents the leg up.

Sometimes I see such horrific news come across my screen that I sit back in my chair.. or literally walk outside to get my head around it. I know you do as well.

You may think of the current economic meltdown as something that would cause this. But how about the freshwater dolphin in China that recently became extinct? This was an entire species becoming extinct.

It's clear to me we've been playing Russian Roulette. Anyone that has children sees our planet's peril with the set of lenses that are, in my opinion, the most accurate. It's one thing to spoil your own area, another to leave a spoil for the person after you and another thing entirely to spoil it to the point where it's no longer uninhabitable. More and more I'm starting to see presentations and books with titles that essentially question if humans can last this century.

We've never had enough money to really do the job we need to do... at the level it needs to be done.

We never will either.

The ongoing global financial meltdown affects us all. From a perspective that focuses on our mission we need to understand this. We need to be able to more accurately project where our funding sources are coming from and how they'll be affected by this wave. We also need to know how to further diversify our revenue streams to remove the peaks and valleys of cash flow. This would protect us from downturns in individual areas.

My larger, and more important point, here is that we must continue to sculpt a culture that can thrive on almost no funds. With a healthy leanness (not running on fumes) as a hallmark of our mission, we can leverage every element toward our mission (activists, volunteers, paid staff, board of directors, affiliates, partners, donors, etc). To over simplify this point I'd say, "if given the choice between someone's wallet and their heart, always choose their heart." That is, we can't buy supporters and what we have when we win a supporter... is priceless.

Another illustration of this mindset is the value of our grassroots network and individual supporters. Our members can now sign up to give us a few dollars a month which to them may be almost nothing but to us it's supporting our future and ensuring our mission is accomplished.

Building on this point, let's shift a bit away from the world in which we operate and look at some characteristics... some strengths.

Surfrider is an idea.

Surfrider is an idea, more than it's an organization, a brand, a set of policies or a group of people.

It's the idea that beaches should be accessible, waves should be protected, water should be clean, etc.

It's the idea that our coasts should be protected.

Everything beyond that idea kernel is interesting and necessary... but it really isn't the essence. This is important as we always want to keep our eyes on this idea ABOVE any other operational issues. This enables us to see things more clearly, act more nimbly and stay on course more accurately.

The idea is the forest. Everything else is the trees.

This kind of thinking enabled us to look past our existing structure recently and fund Ximena to take the Rise Above Plastics message, a la "An Inconvient Truth" presentation, to more than 75 destinations. Thinking this way enables us to look at fresh internet toolsets and find ways to scale our message in new ways.

This brings me to the network effect.

Think of the telephone, how much value would it have to you if there were only two on the face of the planet?

Not much. How about if there were t en phones? Not much.

How about if there were a few hundred million and you could talk to your daughter in-between her classes and encourage her on an upcoming test? Massive value.

Now substitute Surfrider chapters for phones.

We have more than 100 chapters around the world... if they are unconnected and don't have a clue what each other are doing then it's the equivalent of having a two or three chapters.

Throw in Chapternet, Regional Conferences and our regional staff... and all the sudden one see's campaigns born in one hemisphere blooming in another. The Rise Above Plastics campaign which was branded in San Diego, is now a vibrant part of our work all over the globe. One sees the network effect kicking into gear... all aimed directly at our mission, the idea.

Worth stating, is that our network isn't like a regular, corporate pyramid-shaped organizational structure. This points back to the "Surfrider is an idea" point.

Of course we have a formal, legal structure with policies and bylaws that we rigorously adhere to... but the network overall is flat.

When an activist comes to me with a question I routinely connect them with another chapter or affiliate. Many times, their request can be answered by pointing them to work being done somewhere on the chapter/affiliate network.

Every single day someone from one region connects with another from another region. They do this via the Activist Listserve, MySpace and Facebook, email, Skype, IM, etc. That happens because our network is flat. And because we've been at this for a couple dozen years, it also spans the globe.

Next year we're going to hit our 25 year anniversary. In some ways we've reached a level of maturity and in other terms we're still newbies.

One thing we need to do is make sure we continue to scale the idea of Surfrider. We can do this by developing and improving what already exists. For example, our MySpace friends exceed 100,000 when totaled across dozens of separate pages. We can, and must, also do this by further expanding our reach and relevancy with the youth.

Whitney Houston believes that children are our future... so do I. I had to throw something inane in to see if you were still paying attention. I'm glad you are...we're almost done.

For me, the future can be summed up in three models.

Wikipedia is the idea that a central place for intelligence should be massive and accessible; that the largest encyclopedia in the world should be available for everyone. It further believes that we, all of us, have the collective intelligence to make the best possible encyclopedia.

Surfrider as an idea is very similar to Wikipedia. To a large extent the Surfrider idea, it's network and it's programs and victories have been built by lots of like-minded people. This is referred to as crowd-sourcing and lots of other trendy names. The core point in the wiki idea is that it scales well as it can be built in any hemisphere, at any time, etc. This is how I think about Surfrider... this is what I see every single day here.

I also think Napster is an interesting network model to keep in mind. If you look past the pirated music, this was a peer-to-peer network. The core point was that any given peer's offering was a key piece of the larger value.

We have this characteristic as well. Case in point: Jim Jaffe lives in Solana Beach. He's a deep subject matter expert on sea walls and he's plugged into the Surfrider network. He's arguably more plugged in to the activist listserve than to his local chapter. This is a great example of the value of different onramps. Sometimes it is easier and more effective to engage as an activist via your keyboard than it is to show up in person. That's the difference between a micro-ask (a reply to an email) to a macro-ask (paint a sign, come to a hearing and stay for ten hours).

Lastly, I'm looking at open source entities such as Linux that represent a strong, umbrella mission. Essentially, there is power in a singular, large idea. Linux = software should be free. Our umbrella idea, as outlined above, is self-managing. I hardly ever have to tell people that what they are doing is "off mission." This characteristic is a strong one when architecting a sustainable and organically growing network.

I'll end this presentation with this slide.

We, the collective environmental community, say "no" a lot. In fact, we say "no" pretty much all the time.

We need to figure out how to get to a "yes."

I don't mean we sell out, take our eyes off the mission, etc. What I mean is that we need to have a seat at the table, insert our suggestions, changes, and modifications into the process and let others know that if we don't get what we expect THEN we will say "no" via challenging the initiative.

That brings us full circle to the first few slides in this presentation. The world is flat; the fuse is lit; and we need to figure out how to invest our minimal funds for the largest impact possible. Alternative Ocean Energy is a great example of this. We are literally at the table with financiers, power companies, and technology companies. We are inserting our concerns and creating new policies that are relevant to alternative power options. We know that we all need to find ways to minimize fossil fuel use. We know that we need to accelerate green technologies. And in order to be able to say "yes" to these new, evolving options we need to front-end the investment of our time and energy. That is the difference between operating reactively vs. proactively.

I'll close with this. The environment is absolutely under seige. We need to understand, at the deepest level possible, what our core strengths are and how to leverage and scale them. We need to connect the dots; the dots being our chapters and activists around the world. We need to do all these things with a singular focus on our mission: the protection and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves, and beaches for all people.
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