Ethan Daniels/shutterstock

Ethan Daniels/shutterstock

Four years ago, Marc and Lynne Benioff committed $10 million to establish a new center dedicated to ocean conservation, joining a long list of mega-philanthropists trying to preserve and protect our planet’s watery depths and the animals who call them home. But unlike some of those peers, the Benioffs chose a decentralized method of choosing its priorities: crowdsourcing.

That set the stage for a pair of Californians, Sarah Hemmer and Sean Hastings, to submit two posts to the Benioff Ocean Initiative’s website, neither longer than 250 words, that inspired the center’s first project: saving whales from fatal collisions with shipping vessels. 

Last week, the University of California, Santa Barbara-based center unveiled the resulting $1.5 million project. Called Whale Safe, it is a mapping and analysis tool that uses artificial intelligence-powered ocean sensors and big data to prevent lethal ocean collisions, largely by pushing shipping companies to slow their vessels to safe speeds.

The launch marks the first of the center’s crowdsourced projects to come to fruition, offering a test case for bringing such ideas to reality, as well as insight into the still-nascent work of the center, which functions as both an academic center and grantmaker. Given its backing by the Benioffs, whose net worth is estimated at $9.6 billion (Marc founded the database and cloud computing giant Salesforce) and who are Giving Pledge signatories, the center could make even bigger waves in this space in the future.

Whale Safe’s first deployment is very close to home: the Santa Barbara channel. Featuring international shipping traffic coming to and from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, it is one of the busiest stretches of ocean on the planet. But the hope is to go much further.

“Marine shipping really connects the global economy,” said Morgan Visalli, project scientist with the Benioff Ocean Initiative, during a press briefing. “As it continues to increase, it’s going to be crucial that we find solutions to prevent these collisions from happening.”

If successful, the effort could alleviate a major threat to some of the biggest creatures on Earth. More than 80 endangered whales—including blue, humpback and fin whales—are killed each year in collisions with ships off the West Coast of the United States alone, scientists estimate, and 2018 and 2019 were the worst years on record for fatal whale-ship collisions off the coast of California. Many times that number likely die in such encounters in other parts of the world.

The center’s grantees for the project included several leading ocean science outfits, notably the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which also received funding from the Flora Family Foundation for the acoustic system it developed for the project, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, whose work in such coalitions we’ve covered before. Others were the Texas A&M University at Galveston, University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

While each were grantees, the project itself was a massive collaboration. “Everyone who receives funding, they’re all working together to build this system,” Visalli told me. 

Ultimately, the team hopes to prevent fatal collisions by using the compiled data to convince—and pressure—shipping companies to slow to the recommended, but voluntary, speed of 10 knots in the Channel Islands marine region. In 2019, just 44% of vessels abided by that limit. 

The project’s website offers a Whale Presence rating to guide decisions, as well as letter grades for companies and individual ships based on their recorded speeds. And the long-term vision is even more expansive. The team “hopes to have Whale Safe projects just as we have Dolphin Safe tuna” one day, Visalli said.

Wisdom of the Crowds?

Getting strangers to help direct your dollars is nothing new. The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge, versions of which have sought innovation in areas ranging from libraries to elections, is one of the most frequently cited examples of crowdsourced philanthropy. 

But the space is not solely the province of bigger philanthropic players. When the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham in Alabama wanted to do “something cool and vibrant” with a block in their city’s downtown, they turned to the public for ideas. In Los Angeles, the Goldhirsh Foundation gave away $1 million in grants based on locals voting on crowdsourced ideas. 

Corporations—and their philanthropic arms—have gotten into the game, as well. The Home Depot Foundation and corporate giant State Farm Insurance have tried crowdsourcing their giving. There’s also a long list of mothballed attempts at crowdsourcing corporate philanthropy, including efforts from giants such as JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi and American Express. So many have failed that one observer declared: “Crowdsourced corporate philanthropy died a year and a half ago, and no one seems to have noticed.” That was in 2014.

One of the most enigmatic and deep-pocketed potential philanthropists apparently did not get the memo. Jeff Bezos famously asked for ideas on how to spend his billions via a 2017 tweet, which to date has received more than 45,000 replies, and spurred scores of op-eds. (Whether he’s actually put any of those ideas into action is another story.)

There is some differentiation between crowdsourcing of ideas—what the Benioffs did—and crowd selection of projects through vote competitions. There are pros and cons to each method, but it’s the latter that is most often criticized. (It’s also worth noting that crowdfunding—pulling in donations through platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, rather than simply asking for ideas—has generally received far more attention than either approach.) 

Vu Le, author of the widely read blog Nonprofit AF, has written that popularity-based grants are “awful, irritating, insulting, inequitable, and hurt nonprofits and the people we serve,” and called to get rid of them. Foundation Director Kevin Starr made a similar call in a piece called “Dump the Prizes” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Both emphasized the time wasted by all of those organizations submitting ideas that are never chosen. As we’ve covered, this has long been an area of rousing debate in the philanthropic sphere, even as such prizes multiply.

In soliciting short-form responses—most are only a few hundred words—and using them as an ideas bank, not in a competition for scarce resources, the Benioff Ocean Initiative seems to have found a promising mix. It’s not very adventurous in participatory grantmaking terms. The team chooses the idea and how to execute it—i.e., they give up no control. But the process does bring in ideas and engage the public, which then may be more likely to engage in the resulting projects, such as by reporting sightings through the Whale Alert app rolled out as part of the Whale Safe system.

“Our team of scientists has a good pulse on what’s going on in the ocean, but by opening up to everyone, ideas come to the surface that may not have come up otherwise,” Visalli told me.

Pulling Plastics from the Planet’s Rivers

The center’s other crowdsourced project aims to capture plastic from the world’s rivers before it is carried into the oceans. More than 40 public comments advocated for action on plastics waste, a topic that’s long been a top environmental concern. The U. N., for instance, has said there could be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050 unless people stop using single-use plastics. 

Benioff Ocean Initiative partnered with the Coca-Cola Foundation to formulate a response. Originally a $3 million project, the quality of the proposals led the partners to boost the project to $11 million. Known as the Clean Currents Coalition, the three-year initiative now supports nine grantees across five continents, including projects focused on rivers in Panama, Vietnam and Kenya. 

“This is one of the top environmental challenges of our time, besides climate change,” said Molly R. Morse, project scientist with the Benioff Ocean Initiative, of plastics pollution.

COVID-19 has slowed the work, but to date, the project’s grantees have collected 25 metric tons of plastic. That’s a whole lot of soda bottles and shopping bags, yet the challenge is enormous. Most recent estimates suggest that 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean from land each year. 

Mines, Sharks, Plastics, and the High Seas

While crowdsourced projects headline the Benioff Ocean Initiative’s work, the team also takes on smaller projects. From the beginning, the center has emphasized empowering academics not just to study problems, but to work on solutions—and its minor projects show signs of that drive. 

The initiative also recently partnered with the Pew Charitable Trusts to support its effort to create marine protected areas in the high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction. As United Nations negotiations got underway on a deal governing such zones, the initiative’s team provided scientific expertise and research, including publishing a peer-reviewed paper, to inform the negotiation process. The team is currently “waiting to see what happens at the next negotiating session,” Visalli said.

The center’s staff is even working on a hyper-local project: reducing the use of plastics in restaurants in the initiative’s home base of Santa Barbara. The team has worked with the city’s chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in a new partnership to get 32 local restaurants to transition to plastic-free items. In more proof of the popularity of marine conservation among the ultrarich, the project has even attracted support from another billionaire couple, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, who have a track record of grantmaking to ocean-related projects.

The initiative’s more fledgling efforts include Deep Sea Mining Watch, which monitors where such extraction efforts are taking place—1 million square kilometers of ocean have been marked for deep-sea mining—and collects science on how it may impact ocean ecosystems. Another project uses artificial intelligence and drones to detect great white sharks in California’s coastal waters. 

What’s Next?

As laid out on the Benioff Ocean Initiative website, their “three-step funding process” would seem quite simple. Ask the public for ideas, apply science to one of those top problems, turn that research into reality with a $1 million budget. It feels, perhaps, reflective of the funders’ tech roots: streamlined, simplified, easy-to-follow.

Four years later, one project has gone 50% over the original budget—with many steps still ahead—and the other has grown to 11 times that sum. But that’s no criticism. It’s good to see the center did not try to stick to such a simplified model in the face of such thorny, complex problems. However, it does raise the question of how things will evolve going forward. 

“With the scale at which the Clean Currents coalition project has exploded, it’s kind of sucked up a lot more of our collective energy” than expected, Morse told me. “We want to make sure they’re getting the attention they need to be successful.”

And success for the initiative means stretching beyond its original scope. “One of our goals as an organization is to see the solutions that we implement that are typically at a fairly local scale be implemented in new locations and situations,” she said.

In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see how much the Benioff Ocean Initiative puts into supporting these existing projects, versus turning to the crowds for new ideas. Building on their partnership with Coca-Cola, among others, they may turn more attention to allying with other funders to ensure these efforts are carried forward.

“What does it look like for us to replicate this elsewhere?” Morse said. “We’re still… working to see what that looks like over the next few years.”

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