This is the second 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?

There used to be a joke among the staff of the Island Institute about dreading the moment when you might be pulled aside at a community meeting or summer event and asked, “What exactly does the Island Institute do?” While the staff can now easily state our purpose, the question still comes up from time to time as we meet new people along the coast and around the country.

At the most general level, the Island Institute partners with island and remote coastal communities so that they remain vibrant places to live, work and educate young people.

At another level, the answer is wrapped up in how we identify our priorities, and how this process shapes where we work. In this month’s column I raise and answer these questions in order to clarify the methods that we use to increase our relevance and responsiveness along Maine’s coast. Our ways of thinking and acting are the foundation of the organization and are helpful to understand before contemplating the question posed in the column title.

Where and how do we focus?

The Island Institute finds its focus in the questions raised by residents of Maine’s island and remote coastal communities. We view year-round island communities as our primary constituency and remote coastal communities the length of Maine’s coast are our secondary constituency. When we are at our best, our organization allocates resources that mirror the highest priorities of Maine’s island and remote coastal communities.

As we all know, community priorities change, and this means that the Island Institute’s priorities must follow suit. Every three years, we reach out to our constituents so they can help us to develop a strategic plan based on the highest cross-community priorities. In addition, we review these community priorities yearly and adjust accordingly. The requirement of remaining flexible means that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what we won’t do.

This flexibility is evidenced in staff job descriptions, none of which last more than a year. Our Island Fellows program reflects this reality. Fellows are new college graduates who apply to live in island communities to work on a community-defined project. They stay for either one or two years, depending on the nature of the community’s request.

Change is the Island Institute’s only constant, aside from our core programs: Island Fellows, Working Waterfront and Scholarships. In 2010 island communities asked that we engage in economic development. This had not been an explicit focus of the Island Institute in the past. We are responding by working with existing economic development organizations in the state to develop the Island and Coastal Innovation Fund that we hope will allow islanders the opportunity to diversify their economies. Our CFO and I are developing the fund with advice from a range of far more experienced advisors from around the country. The diversity of requests sustains us.

Where do we work?

The flexibility that we bring to identifying our priorities runs through the question of where we work. Contrary to popular belief (and our organization’s name), we don’t just work in Maine’s island communities. Islands are certainly our focus, but we have to work at many different scales to find answers to island questions: Job creation, workforce housing, maintaining strong schools, ocean energy siting, access to healthy lobster and fish stocks, etc. These issues drive a process at the Island Institute of determining what scale we need to operate at to get to a solution that will benefit the communities that we serve.

Community – In 2008 it appeared that the lobster business model was broken, price had collapsed and lobstermen were among the many individuals on the losing end of a broader global economic downturn.  We convened a number of island and remote coastal community lobster cooperatives to see who had ideas about how to fix the problem.

While most everyone had good ideas about what they could do, only one cooperative was ready to experiment with a new business model. The opportunity to experiment emerged from a community-based fishing co-op so we focused our energies on supporting them in their community.

Coast-wide – The opportunity to get distance learning technology into all the island schools required that we have relationships with a dozen off-island schools in order to create a competitive proposal-we had to do something for a much broader group of schools in order to do something for all the island schools. Similarly, in order to provide opportunities to integrate technology into school curricula required linking together 20 island and remote coastal schools.


State-wide – When working waterfront preservation and workforce housing were identified as priorities by island community leaders we developed a statewide network of partner organizations so that we could raise state bond funds that would help remote coastal and island communities.

National – In order to assist coastal and island residents to retain access to groundfish stocks we have had to develop a national presence that could affect federal fisheries policy. Future efforts to sustain funding working waterfront preservation similarly require a national presence.

The bioregion (as discussed in the first of this series) is a consideration. After all, healthy fisheries across their entire range are critical to the economic wellbeing of island and remote coastal communities in Maine. We consider trends in the distribution and health of stocks over their entire range, but we get our direction about how to engage in fisheries issues through the lens of the resource harvester. We listen to their questions about bait, storm events, by-catch observations, the diversity of species being seen in traps, and many other experiences that they share from their time on the water. From them we learn the questions that are of greatest interest. In our most recent strategic plan, all of our fisheries work falls under the economic development priority at the Island Institute rather than a conservation or environment heading because this is how the fishermen view questions of their fishery. However the work still links to conservation and ecosystem considerations because without fish there is no fishery.

The fluid nature of our organization has a downside. Non-profits tend to associate themselves with an issue, a geography or a method. Not surprisingly, non-profit staff tend to try to understand each other’s organizations in these terms. It is no wonder that many people are not sure what to make of us. Our job descriptions change quickly, the scales we operate at shift, and our priorities are fluid. I have had people tell me that they are never sure what the Island Institute is going to become next, and this creates tension. We have to do a better job being clear about these fluctuations and managing them, because they are not going away-they are exactly the attributes that have made us successful.