#156 Supporting the Places that Rejuvenate You with Dana Okano, Program Director for Hawai‘i Community Foundation

Nov 27, 2023

Dana Okano from Hawai’i Community Foundation joins us today to talk about the needs of her home state Hawai’i, and the importance of giving back to the land that rejuvenates you. She dives into the ongoing challenge of supporting environmental and community needs. Dana and Sybil dig deeply into her freshwater initiative and many of the important priorities in Hawai’i in order to  donate and support local organizations in a place that many people visit for rejuvenation.

Episode Highlights:

  • Tips and strategies for effective giving 
  • Leveraging local resources in a place that rejuvenates you
  • Favorite grants and initiatives


Dana Okano Bio:

Dana Okano, PhD, AICP, (she/her) is Director of the Natural Environment sector at Hawai‘i Community Foundation, and is responsible for programs such as the Hawai‘i Fresh Water Initiative, Holomua Marine Initiative, and co-chairs the Hawai‘i Environmental Funders Group.  She is also Director of the EPA-funded Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center, providing Technical Assistance to communities across Hawai‘i for their water needs.

Prior to joining the Foundation, Dr. Okano worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program and Coastal Zone Management Program in Saipan, CNMI.  Dr. Okano also previously worked as a Planner at County of Hawai‘i Planning Department, and she began her career as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Benin, West Africa.  




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Dana, I'm so happy you're on my podcast. We met at a Biodiversity Funder group meeting and discussed your work at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. And I mean, it's amazing what you all are doing, and you're in charge of your environmental resources work; of course, Hawai‘i Community Foundation is doing so much. And I decided to focus on Hawaii as a key theme to discuss with my folks and my listeners and donors about remembering that when they visit a place they love, like Hawaii, they can give back.

There's an organization like the Community Foundation that can take donations. And you are so connected to the community. I also wanted to focus on Hawaii because, of course, so many people noticed and worried about the fires. But today we're going to talk about Really what can somebody do to support the place that they love to visit and that rejuvenates them? I want to talk to you, Dana, about the work you're all doing and any ideas you may have for us today.

So, I'm excited about this conversation before we get there and your tips for us about how we can support the places that we visit. Talk to me a little more about your life, what brought you to this place of giving in Hawaii, and everything you're doing now; I'm seeing your resume. It's so impressive. But I love you to bring it up and tell my listeners how amazing you are, Dana.

Great. Thanks, Sybil. Thank you so much for inviting me to come and have this conversation with you. So yeah, I grew up in Hilo, Hawaii It's a small town on the far eastern side of Hawaii Island. Like many people In Hawaii, I went to college on the mainland and had various adventures.

And one of those adventures was when I joined the Peace Corps. I was a volunteer serving in West Africa, and my village had a mini drought there, which changed the direction of my life and career. It struck me because, for those familiar with Hilo, Hawaii is a very rainy town, so I always took water for granted. Experiencing what that community went through with that drought made me kind of pause and, you know, reflect on where I came from and the values that I grew up with. And I decided I wanted to pursue that.

So I changed direction. I ended up coming back home, went to the University of Hawaii to get my Ph.D. in natural resource management, you know, worked a little bit for local government, and after I graduated, I took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working for our coral reef conservation program and our coastal zone management program, I was stationed in the Western Pacific. I was on the island of Saipan, just north of Guam, for several years before again coming home to work at the Hawaii Community Foundation because they had several great programs that were happening, and I wanted to work on those, all of them associated with water. Water is my passion.

Very, very. That's so awesome. And it's such a perfect combination of what you learned about When you went, and you traveled to another place, and you saw the value of water. And then you came back to your place. Support supported that work. That's a whole other conversation. We should be having it, right? How does location affect giving? No. It does matter where you're located. But with our theme today, which is, you know, really looking, Look wherever you go, even if you visit a place like Hawaii, you can give back. And let's just use your program as an example of some amazing stuff. You're working on that. Folks could lean into it. If they were interested in giving, they loved Hawaii.

You have a freshwater initiative and a marine initiative. You have a funder group where people can come together and talk more about the work. Keep going. Tell me all about it.

Yeah, there's so much there, you know. I'll start with the freshwater initiative because, as I said, this is the initiative that brought me into the foundation. Again, I'm very passionate about work. This one is focused on our long-term potable water supply. Still, One of the things that I'm excited about is that it's a positive thing that connects with what's happening nationally, which is The bipartisan infrastructure law and all this funding that is now available for, you know, this five-year period for things like water infrastructure, so we were awarded an Environmental Finance Center grant, and what that enables us to do is work closely with communities, water utilities, and the state agencies across Hawaii to help them access federal dollars to work on their water needs.

So, we are excited about that, and Hawaii has many water needs. I think folks started to hear and understand more about that with the fires in Lahaina and Maui in general and even before that, right? I knew a couple of years ago there was even national-level news about the Red Hill fuel storage leak. And what that impact was on our potable water supplies and our groundwater aquifers on Oahu.

And so water is and has been an area that needs more protection in Hawaii. And so, I'm so glad I get to work on these issues—our Holomua Marine Initiative partners with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources. Courses are working to manage the nearshore areas effectively. Still, the key is in co-management with the community, and I think this gets to the heart of what I feel about our natural resources here in Hawaii, which is that we all have such a connection to the place.

And I think that's what visitors to Hawaii also see and feel, whether or not they can articulate it; that is, they also feel that connection to the place. I think maybe one of the places, one of the ways where there's a little bit of difference in how we approach it between ourselves as locals and visitors, the locals understand that connection to the place is reciprocal. We also know what we get from the place, and that connection we feel also means we have a responsibility to give back to it. 

And I know a lot of times when, you know, folks go on vacation, and they experience something and say, oh, this was so great. And I feel so much better after this vacation. But that's very extractive, right? It's very much me and what I got out of it. And we don't always remember to give back to that place that needs that support. 

And we are working in co-management with the community to protect and take care of it. The place ensures we also fulfill our responsibility to give back to the place we love and get so much from.

Do you think that right now, this is a gap that needs to be filled? I mean, do you feel that you have a lot of visitors to Hawaii who don't … Maybe they just don't know where to give and how to give back this way, or are you? I feel like there's already a lot of interest in giving back to the place they are visiting. 

I think a couple of things. Before the Maui Fires, many visitors would visit Hawaii and see its beautiful and idyllic beauty. And so, they think nothing needs help, right?

They think it's perfect, right? It is there always; nothing is ever perfect, and it always is. It needs to be supported, and many areas are challenged and need support, but I just think that compared to where people come from, it looks so great, and so you don't, you don't see where you know. Areas that need a little more love are.

I will say the Maui fires, which I think brought out people, and it's where we saw that people had the connection, recognized it, and wanted to give back. The outpouring was so tremendous from around the world. It was, you know, we felt the Aloha, if you will, from the rest of the world looking at us in Hawaii and particularly on Maui. It was just amazing.

And I think it was very hopeful for all of us because we realized That people do see, recognize, and want to give back and support, and yeah, perhaps they didn't know, but now they do. And we hope that they will continue supporting us in these ways.

One trend I've seen, and I did have a theme on disaster philanthropy earlier in 2023, where I interviewed folks who were sort of experts, giving around disaster philanthropy. One of the challenges around that is that there might be an outpouring of support around the disaster, which is wonderful. Still, the challenge is that that tapers off very quickly afterward, so that is one thing that I'm thinking about here: giving to the place, giving to the place that rejuvenates you. In addition to the Place where you may live, I just wanted to emphasize that. That's wonderful. You had this outpouring of Support. And then how do you capture those donors to discuss with them the long-term issues and the narrative there? It's really important.

So, you know, I appreciate this, and it's important to think about how we, and all of us, support the communities we love, whether they're where we live or visit. The rejuvenation and I love what you said. Dana, too, is so about Hawaii. Beautiful. And when you're going on vacation, you often stay in hotels or via Verbos or something that is all pristine.

And so, you may not necessarily feel that there's any real need, but there is and always is. But then I also think about how, when I'm visiting a place for rejuvenation, sometimes I'm held back as well. This is my challenge; I'm here for rejuvenation. I don't have any idea what the real needs are here. I'm not going to do anything. Here, I'll focus more on my home because I worry that I will mess it up. Right. I don't want to, you know, give money in any way problematic. I want it to be supportive of the community. What would your advice be to folks who are very giving and want to give back but may be concerned because they just don't know enough about the place they go for rejuvenation? What are some? What tips and tricks might you have for us regarding how we can think about that?

Those are great points, and yeah, I'll offer just a couple of things. You know, one is that I know that that is part of the appeal for us as an organization like the Hawaii Community Foundation because donors know that we have our roots. On the ground with the people you know, we know the places and people and what's happening. And so that is why many folks will give through the Community Foundation because they know that we are directing the money in the best ways possible for Hawaii. 

Related to that, you know, very specifically for environmental funders and interest. You know I co-chair the Hawaii Environmental Funders group. And you know, one of the purposes of that group, and you know it, is fairly informal. But the group comes together because even as Hawaii's primarily Hawaii-based funders, there are some mainland funders.

Also, they recognize that even for themselves, they need to learn and, you know, have a pure exchange, do site visits, and understand what's happening on the ground to inform they're giving better. And they're learning. 

And there are other, you know, pure exchange groups here in Hawaii and so on. I would also recommend connecting with them because you can often attend webinars to hear about what you know. What nonprofits are doing on the ground, or you can hop in and join on-site visits with some groups and, you know, go and experience.  So, take advantage of the opportunities to learn more about what is available and what others are doing.

And if you don't have that, time or energy, you can always just give to the Community Foundation because we know what's happening.

Right. And we're talking about the importance of intermediaries who know the community, and community foundations are a great example. Are there any other examples you can think of that you might want to give? Give us advice if we want to, but we don't know all the issues. Want to support them? Places that give us rejuvenation and happiness

Good question. I mean, I think that the challenge is all of us are busy with our time constraints, limitations, and what is available. And I think that's why I mentioned, you know, some of these kinds of fund or peer exchanges because sometimes it's just a matter of talking to other funders. To get a sense of what's out there and learn about the sometimes collective efforts that several funders are giving, you can help leverage your dollars for greater impact.

So, it's really about creating your community. Also, interested folks and helping to leverage the work you're all doing together.

Yeah, and also, sometimes there are national nonprofits that you might love that you work with or maybe donate to. And they have a Chapter in Hawaii? Something like that, right?

Some. Yes, sometimes that is the case too. And it's helpful.

Yeah, yeah, although. I'm thinking out loud here because the only word of caution I have is that sometimes, some states don't have … they might have national groups working there, but they don't always have. That's not always the same group that is working on the issue. I might care about it because I Come from …  I mainly live in Oregon, and there are wonderful national Groups. Still, there are so many local groups that are also very connected in the community, and that's where a community foundation can help.

I love this conversation. Can we discuss some of your favorite grants and initiatives you've worked on now? I'm hesitating to say favorite because I know you like all of them. So even if you don't mention them, it doesn't mean they're unimportant. But talk to me about some of them and some of the things you guys are working on.

Wow. Yeah, that is a great question. So, I think I have to focus on our marine volume because there's so much activity happening there right now with communities on the ground. So, one example is this: This is a public-private partnership with the state. As I mentioned, I loosely modeled off the public-private partnership in California with their MPA program and resources. Legacy fund. 

Marine Protected Area program 

Yes, thank you. Sorry for the acronyms, yes.

Yeah, no problem.

So, we are working closely with the state agency to ensure that the community and government are building their capacity and muscle around nearshore marine management together because they need Each other to succeed and move forward.

So, one recent grant we just closed and are reviewing right now is to support the Makai Watch program. The Hawai’i Makai Watch Program is the program that the state agency hosts. Still, it works with community groups to help the state agency be the eyes and ears on the ground—initial outreach and communication to folks about the marine rules, and so on.

You know what, when certain types of fishing gear or regulations are in season, what you're allowed to do or not allowed to do at different areas on the shoreline is sometimes involved, especially in high tourist visitor areas. You know, reminding folks gently that. No, it would be best not to sit on the turtles. They're endangered species or things like that. Right. And then there is the partnership.

And of course, if the community group on the ground is, you know, encountering challenges with a particular incident, they can call for enforcement, then with the state agency, and they'll come out and take over from there. But it's helping to expand the education of visitors, so we just offered a grant round to both the state agency and the communities working with that state agency to strengthen that program. 

So, we think it's a really good example of those, you know, Co-Mar management entities being strengthened together to manage our nearshore resources better.

Well, I love that example because it's an example of leveraging with the state; it's the kind of thing that is like if we just got a grant. In general, to something rather than collaborating with other funders in the place we know, and then we might be missing out on that opportunity to support you to do that. That's wonderful. Are there any other examples you want to share with us?

Yeah, there are so many I think I will pivot a little and highlight some of our freshwater initiative work. So, a couple of years ago, we offered a grant program primarily looking at AG producers because AG producers are high-volume water users. 

And you know, we are trying to understand better how we can support them in making the changes they need to upgrade their systems so that they can have, you know, better water efficiency and use less of our potable water supply. 

And we were excited about one of the local farms. It's a great nonprofit that works a lot with students and at-risk communities, and they are very progressive in their approach, and they were expanding, you know, through. Other funding had expanded the size of their farm area and production area. 

So, they would need to build, you know, new Brent stations and wash facilities for the growing vegetables. They very proactively said, we want to capture all of this water and reuse it here on the farm instead of just wasting it, so we were happy to give them a grant to build an on-site water reuse system for their entire farm. 

Those are; we love those examples.

Yeah, those are just great. Anyone listening to this and who is inspired will have the link to everything you talked about so folks can donate and follow up with you, Dana, in the show notes. So check out the show notes, everybody. 

So before we go, can you just offer me a highlight? The top things you want my listeners to think about when they want to do good and not mess up in their donations if they want to give back to the place they visit that gives them rejuvenation.

I think there are two things that I will highlight. You know, I talked about it a little bit earlier, but I want to emphasize that there is a reciprocal nature to the giving rate. Hawaii gives, the place gives, and we want to ensure we give back.

And so really, you know, homing in on the nonprofits that I think have that same mentality and understand that relationship of giving. Place and then also underscoring relationship and how important that is, we all, I think we all understand the challenges of, as you were saying earlier, knowing where you give and how you make sure you're not doing it in a way that makes things work.

And so really taking the time to build your relationship, but also to work with the folks on the ground who have the relationship and can. Ensure that positive change is going forward because you know things on the ground. Take time, and the relationship makes things happen on the ground.

I love it. Love it. Love it. OK, so I think the kind of advice you're giving us is helpful. To all my listeners, please think about the places you love to go that rejuvenate you and know that organizations like community foundations are established there. You can look them up, reach out to them just like Dana, and ask them if they have any collaborative funder groups or even if I'm sure they would just take a donation. To bring it out on any of the issues you care about, houseless environments What are several things you care about?

So, they are a great resource. You could also reach out to them and just ask them about nonprofits that they know about on the issues you care about. And then we talked a little bit today about whether there's a national or international organization you love. They have chapters—local chapters—in the places that you visit.

So many folks care about Hawaii and go there for rejuvenation, and I'm just so happy that I could focus on this conversation with you. And I also interviewed Eric Coe as well. Who is a funder in Hawaii to talk about specifically, this place that so many of us visit, and I think not enough of us necessarily think about giving back. And so, I'm just so happy to talk to you about this today. Have a great rest of your day, Dana.

Thank you so much.