Our Daily Planet Exclusive Interview with Jacob James, Managing Director of the Waitt Foundation, where he creates and manages novel approaches to philanthropy and public-private partnerships around the world. Waitt Foundation is a member of San Diego Grantmakers.
ODP: How did the Waitt Foundation land on restoring ocean health as a principal goal of the organization? Has that always been your passion?
JJ: I am lucky to have joined Ted Waitt, co-founder of Gateway, Inc. and Chairman of the Waitt Foundation, as his Assistant and Policy Advisor just under ten years ago. Around that time, the Waitt Foundation was reorienting from a US-focused community development grantmaker to what we do today: Ocean Protection, mostly in the developing world. Except for my one year of service in “The Swamp,” I have always lived within 15 minutes of a beach, or on an island. The ocean is key to my family, my soul, my happiness. Put another way, my adopted Barbudan puppy, “Hurricane” José, would much rather play with washed-up California kelp than with a ball. That pretty much sums me up. Finally, my overarching life passion is solving gender pay equity — environmental policy and human equity are not that distinct for me. How will societies ever respect Mother Nature if we cannot respect our own mothers?
ODP: You have funded projects from Tonga to Panama to Gabon — what is the key to success for your work with communities?
JJ: Bold political leadership because – as the boss often says – “fish can’t vote.” In nearly every case where the Waitt Foundation has seen successes for the ocean – through NGO partners or through direct government engagement – it has been because someone, somewhere in some government, made the future of the ocean their personal/familial/political cause. Our goal is to be the (sustainable!) fuel behind those leaders, individually and collectively. The Waitt Foundation tends to work through partnerships with these key government champions, where our affiliated Waitt Institute and Barbuda Recovery & Conservation Trust do the really hard work, what I call ‘Hand to Hand Conservation’ (and in Barbuda’s case, direct-to-community hurricane relief & recovery).
ODP: What did you learn about how to be an effective conservation advocate from your time working on Capitol Hill?
JJ: Well, my Master’s ‘thesis’ (written while working on The Hill) was titled “In Defense of Earmarks,” so that gives you an idea of how I view driving public policy outcomes. As in life, everything is a negotiation. When you negotiate, you need tools, you need leverage and to the best extent possible both ‘sides’ need to win something. I was extremely privileged to work for the most honorable Member of Congress I ever met on Capitol Hill — Rep. Susan A. Davis of San Diego. In an ugly world, for me, this was hugely important foundational professional training – how to get things done without being evil. Finally, it simply can never be said enough: All politics is local.
ODP: At a time of so much challenge for conservation and the oceans, what makes you optimistic about the future?
JJ: I am endlessly astounded by the forward-looking policies of many of the Governments and Communities of Small Island Developing States, or SIDS. As a block, SIDS have begun to engage the global community in a hugely impressive way, wielding outsized influence through truth, cultural heritage, facts, and first-hand experience. A feat of diplomacy, really. In my opinion, SIDS have become the true Voice of the Ocean, particularly within the context of Climate Change. I love how these island states, with their extremely limited resources, have no qualms in taking on global leadership in ocean protection. We can only hope developed countries catch back up, and fast. To be frank, I’m not that optimistic. But I’m hopeful.
ODP: Since we are spotlighting the work of the millennial generation, we wonder what millennial stereotypes do you defy and which ones do you resemble?
JJ: I am an Institutionalist, not a “Disrupter” or an “Influencer.” I am an “old soul” — I love navigating bureaucratic systems, parliamentary procedure, non-profit governance, political intrigue… the list of ‘boring’ goes on. While recent US history has tried to give the “Deep State” a bad rap, those are my people – in almost every country where we work. They get stuff done. Other than that, I generally find myself more comfortable transacting business with folks of earlier generations, rather than trying to understand why everyone is “pivoting” around all the time. Just stand still and get something done. See a theme? In terms of similarities, I think it’s mutually cool and exhausting that many millennial like me grew up without the internet, and now exist in an almost entirely interconnected world.
What You Can Do: There is a relief fund for hurricane victims in Barbuda. You can find out more here.