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Leadership Where It Matters Most

Photo by: Patrick Fore on Unsplash

By Ben Scheelk, The Ocean Foundation Senior Program Manager and Ocean Connectors Advisory Board Member

I would like to discuss acquiring a van, having it wrapped with our logo, and then using it to transport children down to Mexico. Any issues?

This question, coming from anyone else, would have surely given us pause. Liability, insurance, depreciation, border crossings in a dangerous part of the world… A million red flags pop-up when one of your primary responsibilities is “risk management.” But, the person who asked this question is different. So is the project. Because, this question came from Frances Kinney, Executive Director of Ocean Connectors, a fiscally sponsored project of The Ocean Foundation.

Our response: Let’s make it happen. And, we did. Together.

This vignette highlights why we at The Ocean Foundation consider Ocean Connectors a “special” project here. Yes, it is partially due to the challenges this organization brings. The range of Ocean Connectors’ work is impressive, but with that range comes unique administrative challenges. Yet, the needs of this organization have allowed The Ocean Foundation to form a special relationship with Ocean Connectors and to build a level of trust that has given us the confidence to try to new things and expand the scope of our services.

As Ocean Connectors celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, we reflect back on the project’s humble origins as part of the grassroots nonprofit organization, Pro Peninsula. When Pro Peninsula merged with The Ocean Foundation in 2009, Ocean Connectors became a fiscally sponsored project, joining dozens of other projects hosted by The Ocean Foundation working around the world on key marine and coastal conservation issues. As a fiscally sponsored project, The Ocean Foundation took on Ocean Connectors’ “back-office,” including providing critical administration and infrastructure, such as bookkeeping and accounting, tax filings, insurance coverage, accounts payable and receivable, grant administration, and donor management, among other operational services.

In the fiscal sponsor industry, we often liken our services to a nonprofit “incubator” or “laboratory” that allows projects to experiment with new strategies and business models. In some ways, Ocean Connectors, as it has grown over the years, and its operational needs have expanded, has become a kind of “laboratory” for The Ocean Foundation—allowing us to deepen our expertise in key areas, such as insurance and liability, fee for service revenue models, and working with the state government. In turn, with a dynamic, scalable operational base, Ocean Connectors has been able to significantly grow its programs around its key focus areas, including wildlife and habitat conservation, educational attainment, connecting youth with nature, and creating real-world scientific skills.

Yet, above all, Ocean Connectors is a case study in exceptional leadership. Frances Kinney, Founder and Executive Director, has demonstrated incredible vision and dedication since the organization’s inception. An award-winning educator and entrepreneur, in recent years Frances’ decision to build a strong advisory board, expand programmatic staff, and diversify revenue streams is resulting in substantial growth. Long-term commitments from funders, both new and existing, are providing greater financial stability, and enabling the organization to make its programs increasingly effective and efficient. Ocean Connectors is progressively becoming a “well-oiled” machine with significant prospects for organizational growth during the next ten years.

But, it is not only the operational and programmatic successes that make Frances such a remarkable leader. It’s her vision. Frances’ commitment to working with children from underserved communities. Her ability to continually inspire her team and others to foster a future generation of dedicated environmental stewards. That’s what makes Ocean Connectors exceptional. And, in a time when bilateral relations between the United States and Mexico are strained, Ocean Connectors is building bridges to unite the next generation of conservationists and bring our nations closer together for a shared purpose. Ocean Connectors is providing leadership where it matters most—and we could not be prouder.

Ben Scheelk is the Senior Program Manager at The Ocean Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, which serves as the fiscal host for Ocean Connectors. Ben also serves in a volunteer capacity as Treasurer on Ocean Connectors’ advisory board.


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