This is the first of a series of columns that will discuss an inflection point in our organization’s history: what is the proper scale of the/an Island Institute?

I begin this discussion in Portland, Oregon at an organization called Ecotrust. I draw on Ecotrust’s experience as a way to introduce some of the ways that an organization can grapple with questions of growth, scale and their relationships with people and resources that are woven into the cultural fabric of these places.

Those of you familiar with the television show Portlandia will be aware that Portland, Oregon is known for taking ideas about sustainability, conservation and individuality to the nth degree. It seems like everyone in Portland is actively cultivating an identity that attempts to push the outer edges of hip. Those in the non-profit sector are no exception.

I went to Portland, Oregon after the Seafood Summit in Vancouver (see Field Notes “Apparel and Seafood: Paving the road to values-based living with questions“) because the Island Institute is working with Portland-based non profit Ecotrust on the idea of a fishermen-owned brokerage that would represent community-based fishermen and their seafood brands from around the United States. While at Ecotrust I had the opportunity to sit with the organization’s founder and president of 20 years, Spencer Beebe.

Spencer and I discussed how he had worked at building organizations in his career. Early on he was part of a movement among The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) international staff and trustees who broke away to create Conservation International. The break with TNC was undertaken, according to Beebe, because he and others came to disagree with the way that TNC wanted to replicate its conservation strategies around the world, rather than taking an approach that would allow conservation to emerge differently from country to country. This critique of TNC could almost be equated with an interest in avoiding a new kind of colonialism, this time around in the clothes of conservation. In the end, establishing a country-by-country approach to conservation did not satisfy Beebe. Instead he sought something that more closely reflected the needs of specific communities and natural resources.

Twenty years ago, Beebe left Conservation International to found Ecotrust in his home state of Oregon. This time, the scale of the work he would embark on would be termed the “bioregion,” a scale that privileged the geographies within which resources coexist with human use. Rather than asking questions that begin with traditional governance units like the U.S. and Canada, or Oregon, Washington and Alaska, he asked what scale the organization should operate at to conserve natural resources and the communities that depend on them. From this perspective, the geographical range of salmon and salmon-harvesting communities have determined the scale at which the organization operates.

This approach led Ecotrust to take on work along the entire west coast of the U.S. and Canada, working on salmon conservation, community economic development, groundfish conservation, community-based forestry, ocean planning, terrestrial food systems and much more. Ecotrust, on occasion, morphs into a national organization when the results it needs for its West-Coast communities can only be achieved by steering national policies. The most recent example, which I have been involved in, is the Communities and Catch Shares Blue Ribbon Panels. Over the past year, Ecotrust hosted a series of meetings around the U.S. in an effort to shape the national catch share policy in ways that it hopes will be favorable to community-based fishing organizations. If it is successful it will be achieving something for the entire country so that it can fulfill its mission to support the community-based fishing groups that they work most closely with along the west coast.

In addition to Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon, there is an Ecotrust, Canada and an Ecotrust, Australia. Rather than pushing Ecotrust out into these countries, Beebe talks about being invited locally, yet sustaining an increasingly global discussion about local solutions through what he refers to as building a “magic canoe,” referencing native community approaches to collaborative learning. What I find interesting from an organizational growth perspective is the challenge created when an organization is asked to respond to community requests while also focusing on bioregional scale solutions.

One of the challenges of being bioregional is to accept not being local everywhere, and instead choosing carefully where and when to be local. In addition, an organization that can’t be local everywhere must increasingly depend on developing exportable tools that can be repurposed locally from place to place. Economic devices like loan programs, mapping tools, and publications that share information from place to place have become vehicles through which Ecotrust can produce results locally when there simply can never be enough staff to be in each community.* Those familiar with the Island Institute’s work will begin to sense familiarity in this story.

I highlight Ecotrust because the people there have been inspiring to work with and because it has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on what we do at the Island Institute in Maine, an organization that is both similar and different. Ecotrust is the organization that I think most closely mirrors the Island Institute in the United States. The Island Institute is much smaller, about one-third the size of Ecotrust, and we serve a much more finite geography. Nevertheless, both organizations operate based on a philosophy of balanced use, recognizing that you can’t have conservation without economic development, strong schools without affordable housing, and an understanding of the hard work that becomes change. All of these issues are interrelated.

What scale should an organization strive to achieve in order to provide high quality services to its constituents, particularly when the economies of these communities rely on ocean resources that exist at bioregional scales? Both Ecotrust and the Island Institute are constantly asking this same question, although I think our answers are slightly different. In next month’s column I will talk about how a mission focused on the 15 year-round island communities on the coast of Maine raises different opportunities and challenges than the bioregion, and what being invited locally might mean for the Island Institute as we are asked to contemplate amplifying island voices from across the islands and coast of Maine, to island and remote coastal residents beyond.

*It is interesting to note that the tools mentioned above (maps, financing, and publications) have been the traditional tools of colonizers, the difference for Ecotrust and Island Institute is in how these tools can be deployed through participatory methods to help communities represent themselves rather than finding that they are being managed from a distance because of these tools.

Rob Snyder is Executive Vice-President of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.