#150 An Example of a Pooled Fund that Protects Sharks with Lee Crockett, Executive Director of the Shark Conservation Fund

donors effective philanthropy founded history partnerships pooled funds shark conservation fund strategic Oct 16, 2023

Lee Crockett joins us to share his expertise as the executive director of the Shark Conservation Fund (SCF). Lee shares how donors founded SCF and pooled funds to form strategic partnerships that conserve the shark population. Lee explains the difference between the regular nonprofit and the pooled donor strategy, while also offering words of wisdom for those using this strategy. 


Episode Highlights:

  • The History of The Shark Conservation Fund (SCF)
  • International Collaboration
  • The difference between a regular nonprofit and a pooled fund like SCF


Lee Crockett Bio:

As executive director of the Shark Conservation Fund (SCF), Lee is responsible for designing and implementing programmatic and grantmaking strategies, managing SCF’s grantmaking portfolio and staff, forming strategic partnerships with NGOs and other funders, fundraising, ensuring strong operations and governance, and representing the SCF to governments, NGOs, philanthropists, and the public.

Prior to joining the SCF, Lee spent 20 years working on fisheries management at the state, interstate, federal, and international levels with both the US. Government and the non-profit sector. Most recently, he was the Director of U.S. Oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts where he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management. 

Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest U.S. coalition dedicated to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Prior to that, he was a fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries.

Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut.




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Full Transcript: 

Lee, I am really glad you're on my podcast. Seeing you at the Biodiversity Founder Group meeting in New Orleans a little while ago was fun. And I asked you to be on, and I've heard from you, Lee, that this is your first podcast. I promise it won't be too hard.

Yes, it is. Yes, and I'm a newbie.

I probably promise you won't be too hard on you. This will be a fun one. You are probably. But Lee, I wanted you on the podcast because I focus on different funding themes for how to be an effective funder. One of the things I'm focusing on is how funders can pool their money on campaigns to make a big difference. 

And you're leading an effort to protect sharks and rays. And as part of that, you're leading it. As part of that effort, there's an intense, important pooled fund where many donors are putting together money. So first, talk to me briefly about What you're doing here. And I also want my listeners to learn about who you are, but let's discuss this campaign. You're working on a little more; donors have greatly impacted it.

Sure. So, we're the Shark Conservation Fund. We've been in business officially since September of 2016. They spent the year before doing that kind of organizing and figuring out what they wanted to do. So, a group of five funders came together and created the fund. And then, I was hired to be the executive director in January of 2017. 

And so, one of the first things I did was develop a strategy to guide our fund-making or grant-making. You know, I spent We spent a good year doing it, and I hired consultants and people to, you know, write us reports and things like that. I checked in with the board of advisors multiple times. Then we put together a group of expert advisors prominent in the shark conservation world and shark sciences, conservationists, shark advocates, those sorts of people—they bounce stuff off of them as well. And the board approved it in December of 2017. 

So, that strategy had three components to it. The biggest problem with sharks is overfishing, which occurs faster than they can reproduce, and a lot of that overfishing occurs in developing countries.

And so, the question becomes: how do you get a developing country to care about sharks? There are many other things to worry about. And so, the most valuable part of a shark is its fins, typically sold to Asian markets for shark fin soup. That led us to look at cities in the Convention on Endangered Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora as listed in CITES Appendix 2. For our country to be able to trade it, it has to decide that the trade is not detrimental to the species in the wild. 

So, if a country is not managing its sharks or doing a bad job, or not managing its sharks, It can't make that determination, and it can't, you know, continue to trade. And so, this opens the door for us to support grantees in major shark fishing and trading countries to help them comply with this. 

And so, the first step was to get species listed, and then in the first six years of the Shark Conservation Fund, we've invested a lot of money—millions of dollars—in getting shark species listed. In the most recent meeting of sightings in November of 2022, they tripled the listed species. 

So now 90 plus percent of the Hong Kong Finn trade is listed on CITES, and in countries that want to trade, these species will have as you know, Comply and make these determinations of no detriment. That's great, but it doesn't change anything on the water. 

And so, we've put a lot of effort into implementing those. So, we've been funding implementation work in countries like Senegal, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, a major shark fishing and trading country. Since the beginning, but more recently, after the 22 meetings, we've funded work in 14 countries worldwide.

OK, Lisa, this is great for you. There's so much to unpack on the issue and the process. Don't apologize; this is great—the thing to unpack.

Sorry, I'm going on.

I mean, first on the substance. I mean, it's really important just to take a minute here. You said 90%. The Hong Kong fin trade is now regulated under CITES. Is that right? Did I hear that right? I mean, let's, let's, let's unpack.

You're daring.

That's a little bit. More, OK. And it doesn't mean that no trade can happen. It means that now it's regulated. And so, you're watching carefully how the population levels of the sharks are doing, correct?

Well, yes. And then we're helping countries develop these documents called non-detriment findings. It's that determination I was talking about, and a good non-detriment of finding should include management means.

Yeah. Right.

You know, restrictions on cash and trade and gear and that sort of thing, and many times, sharks aren't… You can't catch and trade those animals sustainably; they're susceptible to overfishing. And so, you could have a negative NDF that says: 0 quotas, no trade. It's based on this particular species, so a variety of things can come out of it, but really, it's a tool to drive management where management hasn't existed before.

And that's so important because this is an issue that a bunch of donors came together on, and they cared about. There is a lot about it. And then you did; it sounded like a year of research. What is the best way to pool your money and make sure? And you're also an expert in campaigning Lee yourself; we didn't officially introduce you … Lee Crockett. We'll do this briefly, but I want to finish this thought here. 

And so, I'm looking at some of the advisory members, for example, from the Angell family, Moore, Vulgenau, some important foundations in this space, and they do fund it; they fund it independently on ocean issues. But it seems they pulled their money here for this particular one. It feels like to make sure that things are more streamlined; in this case, there was a reason not just to keep funding individually but to come together. 

And it sounds like you were part of that conversation to get this important and ultimately get major progress on the issue that just Happened with CITES. Talk to me a little bit more and unpack. That's a little. But more, how did you do this? What kind of questions did you ask and answer in that? Research phase. Did you consider other options before deciding on this CITES strategy? Tell me a little more about that.

The CITES strategy is about reforming fishery management, and so that's a major part of it. The other part of our strategy has been preventing extinctions. And so, sharks and rays, Elasmo Brinks, as they're called. They are the second most. Endangered group of vertebrates in the world; they're behind amphibians.

And now for an ad. But don't go away because Lee has lots more to talk to you about.

And so, one of the things we funded over the years was The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which does these Red List assessments, where they look at a group of animals and determine how vulnerable they are to overextension.

And so we funded an assessment of sharks. That was one of the first things we did because we felt you needed that baseline information. Where are the problems? How dire are the problems? And so we funded that, and the results of that came out in September 2021. And I just cited the main headline result: 37% of the sharks and razors were threatened with extinction—the second-most endangered group of vertebrates behind amphibians.

 And so that's kind of the basis that informs. A lot of what we've done, and so because they're so threatened with extinction, that's the other aspect of our strategy: going into countries where there are hotspots for sharks and rays that are threatened with extinction. 

So, you take that IUCN data and map it out globally on a map of the world, and Hotspots pop up off the southeast coast of Africa, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya; Madagascar in the Coral Triangle; Indonesia; Papua New Guinea; Malaysia; off the southeast side of South America; and then in the eastern tropical Pacific, you know, is off of Panama and Costa Rica. And those countries are the hotspots. 

So, we've been funding work in countries there to, essentially, like in the United States, get species listed on the equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in these countries so that no take is allowed. They can't kill sharks and rays anymore, so we fund work in Australia. We're trying to get these endangered sharks legally protected in Indonesia and South Africa. So those are the two things.

Great. Great. And it sounds like you wake up every day. That's what you do. Think about this. So, I'm sure all the folks pulling their money with you appreciate it. 

Now, let's talk a little bit more about you, Lee. How did you end up doing this job? Like, what talk about your trajectory in your life that led you to lead this work?

Alright, I'll try to give you the short version.

So, when I got out of high school, I joined the United States Coast Guard, and I was an enlisted man. And, you know, I had no experience to see. And so, we went right out, and I loved it. I couldn't get enough of going out to sea. I loved being on it. And it was under it. And so that led me to study marine biology in college. 

So, I'm at the University of Connecticut, got a bachelor's degree in biology and then a master's degree in biological oceanography. And while I was in graduate school, I applied for a fellowship to work in DC for Congress. They're called Canal Sea grant fellowships. 

And so, I worked for the House Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee, which handled all the ocean legislation in the House of Representatives. And I loved it. You know, you get bit by that Potomac fever bug. And they hired me, so I spent nine years working for the House of Representatives on various Coast Guard issues, marine environmental stuff, and boating safety. And you name it. And then the house flipped Newt Gingrich in the contract for America came in. I lost my job, and the committee I worked for was disbanded. So everybody I knew lost their job. 

I worked the National Meat Fishery Service hired me, the federal agency that manages ocean fish, and I worked there for about four years. I worked on implementing some new changes to the law governing managing fish. And then, I went to work in the nonprofit sector with our mutual friend, Steve Gainey, for quite a while. So, I ran this coalition of NGOs and fishermen, commercial and recreational fishermen, and marine scientists. It's called the Marine Fish Conservation Network. Their sole reason for being was to add conservation amendments. To what's called the

And Lee, for those wondering who Steve is, I haven't had him on my show yet, which I need to do. But he's with Pew's charitable trust. So, keep going, Lee. Keep going.

Yes, yes. So, I worked on that group, you know, led that group for, I guess, 8 1/2 years to try to get more. Motion language into what's called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs ocean fishing. So, generally, it is 3 to 200 miles offshore. That's the law that governs the federal government and manages them. They were required to have a catch limit for every species they managed. It can't allow overfishing, and it can't exceed scientific advice and all that seems. You know, it was logical, but it was a radical change. 

And then Pew, the Pew Charitable Trust, was a major funder of that effort. And they changed their tax status in 2004. A private foundation to a public charity, 501C3, because they wanted to do things themselves. They didn't just want to make grants. And so, in 2017, they started implementing that. 

And so I was hired. To lead the effort to implement the amendments I worked on, so you know we. I spent several years advocating for, you know, strong amendments to the law to end overfishing and the switch to ecosystem-based management. 

And then about six years ago, I think September of 2016. My program officer at Pew approached me and said, hey, we're putting together this. Thunders Collaborative works on sharks. It's a lot of international stuff, and it sounded interesting to me because my whole career was US-focused. On, you know, generally fish, so this is a lot of international work, which seemed like an interesting job—something new and different that I hadn't experienced before.

So, but also based on your history, yes, international, but you're not a foreigner to this whole conversation. You know what's going on here, too. You're not. Yeah.

Yeah, well.

Yes, that's true. I know, I know—a lot about fishing management.

I'm not letting yourself put yourself down, huh?

I know a lot about tree management. I have led several advocacy campaigns in the United States that I am unfamiliar with.

Yeah, that's great. That's, yeah, such a great story. And I do. 

One of the things I talked about a lot with folks who were considering Putting money into pooled funds, especially on campaigns like what you're working on that they care about, is one of the many benefits of this. Someone like you, who is an expert on the fundamental issue, can come in and help move things forward. So that can be helpful, instead of having, you know, 15 different foundations with all the different angles you, I mean, they still can have that, but then they can also have a grounding force in this kind of campaign. 

And now for an ad. But don't go away because Lee has lots more to talk about. 

So, thanks for telling me your story. I didn't know the full story. That's what I love about podcasts is that I make people. Sit down that I've Known for a While. It was your history, Lee; now let's discuss some challenges. Have there been any challenges in sort of this model of progress, which is like trying to bring folks together in an enhanced collaboration? What are the downsides to this? Words of caution if someone is thinking about investing or the next steps.

Well, getting consensus on the agenda wasn't as hard as when I ran the Marine Fish Conservation Network, getting, you know, 20 environmental groups and fishing groups to agree on a common agenda. It was very difficult, and I remember in the interview, they asked me, how are you at herding cats? And so my advice to people is that if you get that question in an interview, you should run because it's a bad sign. 

But I think that I've learned that with a group of funders, they have very busy schedules, right? They have a lot going on. So, my job is to be able to do the research and pull it together. Transmit it to them in an understandable way, and they can appreciate, and you know, sort of keep them informed throughout the process. And you know, if you do that, you know it works. It works pretty well. 

So that's one of the things I would advise people: if you're working with a group of funders, you've got to recognize that this isn't the only thing they're thinking about. Whatever the issue, you must keep in touch, inform, and educate. 

I think that was one of the things that helped me. I had experts that, you know, we had. The expert is an advisory group, we had consultants who were experts, so it wasn't just me saying we should do this stuff. It was people who've been working in the field for, you know, decades, so that helped a lot. 

I think one of the challenges is fundraising; that's one of the jobs. That you know as a staff of a pooled fund. You have grantees. You have grantees, so you're making grants, and you've got to keep track of that in the reporting and all that. And then you have to raise money as well. And so, you're writing proposals, reports, and that sort of thing. 

After we got beyond the five initials, as founders of the Shark Conservation Fund, bringing other groups and other philanthropists in has been challenging. And I think one of the things that is particularly challenging for us is It's a single species fund, and there's funds; there's elephant funds. You know, tiger funds and bear funds. You know, there's a species-specific kind of thing. And some people enjoy that and support that kind of work. But then other people in the ocean world want to Invest in something that's more broad-based. There are a lot of other things that get supported as part of their investment, and so that's been a real challenge for us. 

And so, one of the things I've been doing is trying to make a broader case for shark conservation because sharks are such. They're high-level predators; they control the ecosystems and help ecosystems stay balanced. You know, there's research in Australia showing that sharks have healthy seagrass beds when they are present. When sharks aren't present, the eels and turtles rip it all apart. 

There's been research that's been conducted in Florida where, when sharks are present, the Moray eels are, you know, hiding out, you know, in the boroughs and things like that. When they're not, they're out and about running, you know, going around, and there's follow-on research in the Bahamas, where they're trying to figure out what. 

The impact on that reef ecosystem is that you know, the supposition is they're eating the parrot fish that eat the algae that, you know, maintains a healthy reef. So that's the case. The larger biodiversity context of healthy ecosystems is the argument that we're making a lot now. Let's say, yeah, you know, it is a single species fund, but these animals are particularly important to ecosystem health. And the other thing to know about sharks is that they're incredibly vulnerable. They grow slowly, live long, and produce few offspring, so you couldn't design an animal that's less able to extend and stand fishing, and so conservation measures are needed to protect sharks because they're so vulnerable. They protect a lot of other species as well. 

So, for example, you might have to close a particular area to fishing or a certain type of fishing. To protect a shark spawning area, feeding area, or something like that, all the other marine animals in that area will also be protected because they're not. You know that damaging fishing gear will not be in the area. So those are the two larger ecological reasons that, you know, we're Trying to make people aware of.

Yeah, that's helpful, and one little thing I want to talk about here is that sometimes, when I hear you talk, I think, oh, you sound like just a general, not just an executive director of a nonprofit, and it is structured as a nonprofit, right? But there's a difference here. It's different. 

And there's a reason why I wanted to have donors understand, and my listeners understand. How this is different from just simply giving again is still very important to give straight up to your favorite nonprofit. But these pooled funds are a little different. You're doing re-grants. You are serving more like a program officer to these folks, But can you just put a fine Point out how this is different from just a regular nonprofit? Again, the regular nonprofits are very important, but tell me about the different ones.

The big difference is that, you know, we have a global strategy. We're looking at a lot of different things. So even the biggest NGOs, like Lowlife from WCS, have things that they're interested in in certain areas; they have programs. 

So, we're taking a global look and funding globally. You know, so we're not wedded to any particular area. Wedded to any particular solution you know you have me, I'm, you know, I've got a lot of expertise in campaigning and ocean issues and management. I've got staff that are experts on cities, and you know, we just got her masters in marine science, focusing on sharks. The University of Miami So we have a technically competent staff that can understand the issues. And what that helps us do is When we're putting together a project, we can press that NGO to ensure it's a good project. 

One of the things that we push hard on grantees is measurable deliverables. You know, we get a lot of people that are going to, you know, run this awareness campaign, develop a video, or do this study, and it's like that. Great. What's that going to achieve? What is the policy outcome?

So our board is very, you know, focused on changing policies, laws, and regulations. And that's what I put out there; that's the metric I put over all these grantees, which is, OK, those are all good things to do. But how's that going to change it?

Yeah, Lee, I think there are two things you said. They're important to consider, both with your work and with others. It sounds like you're unbranded. You're unbranded and focused on your own. Commission, and you're regranting to support NGOs and nonprofits. As part of their work to push for your unbranded, focused mission and to sort of make sure that if the NGO, our nonprofit, is working in this area, they're sort of staying true to that.

So, you're like an extra layer of support so that all funders interested in this issue don't have to separately or individually call every single NGO on this particular issue. You can then let everyone know that they can contact you, and you can rent. Point out that I think that's a little different from a larger NGO that has a lot of projects, and they have this as one of them, which is again critically important as part of the ecosystem. 

I just wanted to be sure I'm introducing to my listeners that this exists because your work and other organizations like yours are often unbranded. And you're so under the radar that donors, sometimes they go well, don't think I've heard people say this big campaign. We care about it. Didn't it just happen? 

People have said that to me, and I'm like, “No, no, no, no, no, they don't just happen.” It's a whole bunch of things. Nonprofits are part of the mix; often, these pooled funds work under the radar to support the network to make it happen and have expertise there. So that's it. 

Thanks so much, Lee, for being here. On the conversion in the podcast conversation around this issue, do you have anything more you want to say? Any more words of wisdom for my listeners before we part ways, and for everyone you know in the show notes, there will be a link to everything we discussed here. The Shark Conservation Fund: if you're interested, you can check it out. But Lee, give us more. Yeah. Give us your last words of wisdom here if you're laughing.

That was a nice summary of what I said. The other thing to think about with pooled funds is Together, pooling your money as a philanthropist can have a greater impact than one philanthropist by itself, even though we have the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation as a member. We have partnered with them on several projects, so there's a bigger bang and a bigger impact from the work. So, you know, pulling your money together is a really good way to have a larger impact. I mean, even like I said, even the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation couldn't. By itself, run a global campaign to get, you know, 90% of the Shawn sharpen trade. Listed on CITES.

 And so, you know, with the smaller foundations that don't have those kinds of resources, I think it's even more important that they think about finding these areas where they get, you know, these funds where they can put their money and have a greater impact and have assurance, as you talked about, that there's a strategy and that there's competence. Experts that can implement that strategy and ensure that it achieves, you know, measurable results.

Great. Well, this is so fun. Lee. Thanks for taking the time. And best of luck in your work. In the future,

Thanks, Sybil. Thanks for inviting me. We've been talking about doing this for a while. I'm glad we were finally able. To do it now, you need to get Steve Gainey here to talk to you.

Oh yeah.

They are shared with us.

Yeah, totally. Thanks, Lee.

Thank you.