#157 Be a Considerate Thoughtful Visitor with Eric Co, Vice President of Resiliency for Harold K.L. Castle Foundation

Dec 04, 2023

In this engaging podcast episode, Eric Cole, Vice President of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, takes us on a journey through the world of philanthropy, focusing on how we can contribute to the well-being of the places we hold dear. Eric shares insights from his extensive experience and offers valuable advice on giving back during your travels. Discover creative ways to support local causes, connect with local foundations, and make a positive impact while exploring your favorite destinations.

Episode Highlights:

  • The importance of understanding the communities you're helping.
  • Insights into fostering sustainability and preserving cultural practices.
  • Practical tips for visitors to support local nonprofits during their trips.


Eric Co Bio:

Eric Co has 25 years of professional experience working in the fields of ocean science and management in Hawai‘i, other Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, the mainland US and Australia.  During this time, he has worked at The School for Field Studies, The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and currently at the Harold KL Castle Foundation where he serves as the Vice President for Community and ‘Āina Resiliency. He volunteers his board services for The Polynesian Voyaging Society, The Bishop Museum, Hawaiʻi of Institute of Marine Biology’s Director’s Council, Hawaiʻi Monitoring and Research Collaborative, Sust‘āinable Molokaʻi, Oʻahu Visitor’s Bureau, University of Hawaii’s SeaGrant, Save the Waves, and Biodiversity Funders Group in and effort to help Island Earth reach its sustainable destiny. He holds an MA in Marine Resource Management and an Executive MBA from the University of Hawai‘i- Mānoa. 



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Full Transcript: 

Eric, this is going to be so much fun. I've been threatening to have you on my podcast for quite a while, I finally roped you in. I'm very excited to talk to you because we were recently at a funder conference thinking about ocean conservation strategies.

We were talking a lot about how, especially in Hawai‘i, there are a lot of people that go to Hawai‘i for rejuvenation, and, at the same time, the folk that I work with, for example, may even have a house in Hawai‘i, but where they really invest in their giving strategies is more where they live and work in the lower 48.

So we had this really interesting conversation, Eric, about how we discuss and talk with donors, funders, and philanthropists. Even in the places you visit for rejuvenation, there's amazing work happening, and it's OK. Maybe if you don't know everything about that work, but there are really cool foundations there that are working on this kind of stuff and community foundations.

So enough about me know all about you, Eric. First, why don't you tell our listeners more about who you are, what you're about, and the foundation you represent? Then we'll talk about the issues.

Sure. Thanks, Sybil, and thanks for having me. 

Hello, my Coco world. My name is Eric Cole. I'm with the Herald Castle Foundation, which is a 62-year-old private philanthropy that was permanently endowed as Hawai‘i for Hawai‘i about 25 years ago now. The foundation went from kind of a general, generalist foundation to one that decided to focus on three main strategies: one for improving our education system across the state. One for improving our near-shore ocean resilience. Across the state, and as a vestige of where the family's wealth came from, geographic focus on the windward wall or the northeastern Oahu Island quadrant.

I've been with the foundation for 12 years now. Before that, I was with Noah, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for three years. I like to joke, that I'm a recovering federal employee, and before that, I was with The Nature Conservancy in Hollywood for about six years, I think. And that was a really exciting time because, back then, that marine program for the Nature Conservancy in Hawai‘i was brand new. We went from 1 1/2 people to half the volunteer interns, to about 15 staff statewide by the time I'd left, and maybe to bring it back full circle to how we started so Sybil, I appreciate not only you are having me. But the theme Because I think you're absolutely right. 

And I think back to my first field project. As a volunteer at The Nature Conservancy, I was coordinating other volunteers not at Waikiki Beach to remove alien invasive marine allergies, particularly this species called Gracilaria cell cornea. And I will never forget something that has stuck with me all these years. Because we're in Waikiki, we had a bunch of local volunteers, but we also would have a number of volunteers that were visiting from elsewhere, and there was a pastor, I believe, from North Carolina. And he emailed me after the event that he participated in. And he said, thank you for showing me that while Hawai‘i is no less magical, its problems are that much more real. And I can't think of a better way to encapsulate why this is hopefully a worthwhile conversation to listen to.

I love that. I love that and so can we talk a little bit more about first, some of the grants, and other things that you made that gave you the most inspiration? You've been with the foundation for 12 years, so you obviously are having a very good experience there. Tell me more about some of the nonprofit issues that you are interested in. That we should know about.

Sure. We're in such a privileged position to be able to help and to be excitable. To learn about goodness. In the people, places, and efforts around us, while it can be super frustrating to not be able to support a number of them, most of them, frankly, are small private philanthropies.

There's a lot there. There's a lot that inspires me—one long-term partner in particular—that I can think off the top of my head as an organization called KIA, which is an acronym for Kula Inau Alamo, and it is. It is an organizing nonprofit that works with coastal communities across the state, largely rural and largely native Hawai‘ian, but not necessarily. That is looking to move all communities—grassroots communities—forward in their ambitions to sustain their nearshore resources. I believe that everyone understands, and, I would say, increasingly in the world, particularly in Hawai‘i, we have cultural foundations and an understanding of what our natural resources are kind of not only the physical, but the cultural and spiritual sustenance for us.

And so, when I was an intern at The Nature Conservancy 25 years ago. There was a particular online leader, Fisher The island of Molokai so many of us as communities are struggling with our issues. Why don't we come together? And convene around shared problems and try to solve them. And started to devise a kind of collective solutions, and that first meeting on mobile many, many years ago, over two decades ago, ultimately became a program within. The Nature Conservancy That program became a standalone program with a fiscal sponsor, and ultimately, a fiscally sponsored effort turned into a standalone nonprofit that became cool.

And so, we've kind of grown up together. Cooler is now in close proximity to over 40 communities across the state, requiring varying degrees of resource management effort. That really puts an emphasis on the importance of the legacy of traditional cultural practices that offer these shortcuts to kind of sustainable harvest and use. That is millennia old. What a privilege it is to work with these folks to provide these practices as ways to reach a sustainable destiny.

I love that story. And can you talk to me a little more about the whole journey for organization, you helped stand up in support of the folks, and then there was fiscal sponsorship. How did other donors and other philanthropists get engaged with the kind of work that you were helping with in this area?

Terry Geroge, my boss, Kim Miller, who was at the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation at the time—you know, they were the ones, actually. I mean, you know, I was a volunteer, and you said to go to this meeting and take notes. Sure. OK. That sounds really cool. Rub elbows with some of the giants in our communities. 

But it really took leaders in the funding world to believe that this was something worthwhile.

And you know, Sybil, we have all kinds of fun side conversations around philanthropy and what it means. But you know this idea of being the upfront risk of things, right? What does it mean to step into a space that's still a little murky? That's maybe a little uncertain and say “We should try this” with really, really little expectation of return, and I think that's the power of philanthropy, big and small.

And sure, we want to be focused, strategic, and, you know, metric-driven, but in the end, we also just want to help good things get going. And a credit, a credit too. And there were federal funders involved early on, too. I don't mean to just hold up private philanthropy, but you know that, to me, is the real opportunity in the funding space.

One thing I can see is that if you go someplace where it gives you energy and you love it and you're going to sort of get away from it all and you still do, you're saying, oh, yeah, Sybil, I'm hearing you, Eric, I'm hearing you. I would love to donate …In Hawai‘i, let's say this is the place I go every year, let's say, to rejuvenate. And it is something I recommend to folks. I say, you know if you're thinking about a giving strategy, one of the things you should think about is what the places you love are. And think about giving in those places.

The thing I worry about is that a person might say, well, I want to give in a place where I rejuvenate. But because I'm going to sort of get away from it all, I worry that I don't have the expertise. And second, I might start stressing out in these places instead of rejuvenating. 

But talk to me about your advice to folks who might be coming in. Would it be, OK? Well, I want to give back, but maybe give to an organization that's a philanthropic pooled fund that already gives money out.

I know I'm doing a good job supporting the community, but I can still go for rejuvenation and get away from it all. Or what are some of them? What are some of the tactics that you think someone could use to be able to still support themselves in the place where they want to get away from it all? Still want to give back?

Yeah, yeah. It's a great question that's so challenging. You know we're all visitors somewhere, right? And we all take vacations, and we all just want to relax and get away from stuff. And I think, particularly if you're if you're. A repeat visitor to a place then maybe, and I'm going to try really hard not to get preaching your symbol on you and your listeners, but maybe. It's worth trying a little harder. To love a place is to love it for what it really is, not necessarily what you've been or what's been kind of billed for you.

I love that, yeah.

I don't want to be a downer, but 50% of all kids are born into households below the poverty line in Hawai‘i, 75% of Hawaiʻi children are born in homes below the poverty line in Hawai‘i, and I would say that that's probably not altogether different from a lot of places that we would visit.

As for now, there's the facade, and then there's what's kind of behind it. We all have our challenges. A lot of times, particularly for places that are really reliant on tourism, I don't think I'd get too much pushback, you know. In a way, by saying what you know, we become overly dependent on others. In tourism, we're afraid to share what issues we're facing. We don't want to scare anyone Away. But they're there. 

I think you know when, folks, there's a number of ways to help. I mean, even there was this great program. I'm not sure if it's still happening the way the tourism authority initiated the tour, a program where you volunteer at an organization, a local nonprofit. While you were staying in Hawai‘i, you would get a discount on your room. Fair. And I think that's great for you. I know, I think there's one difference between being a bummer and forcing yourself into your comfort zone means people jump off bridges with budgie cords, like you know. There are ways to get out of your comfort zone. Without necessarily.

Right. Well, and if you think about it, Eric, when will we go on vacation? We end up spending quite a lot of money on a lot of things. And so, it would be pretty cool if we sort of thought about it, and I'm challenging myself on this. Too, I don't think I do this in. Where? Why don't we think?

OK, well, we're spending X dollars on the hotel room or other things. Why don't we spend Y dollars and make a donation to a local nonprofit in that area? I love that example that you gave where if you volunteer, then you get a discount. I mean, these are the kinds of creative things I don't see enough of out there, and I sort of wanted to talk with you, and Hawai‘i is a place where I feel like we could do some innovative things. Like this? Yeah, so. Keep going, Eric. I want to keep hearing what you have to say. I see you nodding.

Well, I mean, yeah, and I think there's a place where, as a visitor, you should tread carefully. You really want to go see Waikiki? You know, North Shore. But there's also, I think, a lot of opportunity, and, you know, with the power of the Internet nowadays, it takes time to search to find out, maybe what are the local nonprofits in the area that you'll be staying in, and what are they doing? You know, many of them have pretty regular volunteer opportunities, whether it's every other Saturday or, you know, every Thursday and Friday afternoon. Whatever it might be, you know, maybe there's an opportunity to turn your hands to the ground and, as you say, annoy and really kind of get involved. Get dirty a little bit. And experience what it means to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are working really hard to not only keep Hawai‘i beautiful but keep holy and authentic.

I think there's really a lot of opportunity there. You know, and then, of course, there's, you know, there are standard ways, I think, in which folks can give and feel good about it. Whether it's giving to the Maui Strong Fund Hawaiʻi Community Foundation or finding ways to, you know, maybe leave an extra tip for someone who worked really hard to help you out. You know those things are awesome, always appreciated, and shouldn't be overlooked.

Yeah, I love that. And I do think that it's really important to sort of have this in our vocabulary and add it to our conversation when we're traveling. How do we give back to that community? Are there any words of caution? Is there a way that this could go badly? If we're trying to think about giving back, but we're not of the culture, we're visitors. I would hate to do it wrong, Eric. And do you have any examples of where this has occurred? It hasn't gone that well. 

I have personal examples. You know what funding is. 

But I mean, and I would include you. In this, but you know, I met some of the most thoughtful and empathic people I've ever met. In the philanthropic world, right? I mean, if there was ever a sector or a space of professionals that really tried super hard to be really present, sensitive, and thoughtful, it's in the plan three sector. Let's look at it differently.

And that's always going to be a challenge. I mean, broadly, if we had to be doing things the right way, that was always going to be the biggest challenge. And so, you know, are there ways to do it wrong? Yeah, I think we should never assume that the community doesn't know how to take care of itself. We should never know. We should never think that a place has these problems that I've now come in and can help you fix.

I think it's a matter of asking. I think it's a matter of getting to know people and really listening. Think it's you? I had an old boss who still thinks about this advice all the time … “trust but verify”. And have multiple conversations around the issue so that you can get as many perspectives on it as possible, and, you know, do you commit to that kind of work during vacation. I don't know, Sybil. You know that. That's a difficult one. You know. I'm a vacationer too. Right. You want to go. You want to get away. You want to go away. But you know, if it's something that really interests you, it's a place you love. It's a place that gives you energy. Then maybe it's worth investing in.

Yeah, I mean, it does. It does feel like you can. You can if there's a place that you find yourself coming back to year after year after year. There can be things that you can do and do no harm that are sort of on a higher level and don't require you to get to into the weeds. If you don't have the time when you're there, one of them is to, I would say honestly, seek out local foundations, like yours. And look at what your fund If you agree with the mission statement of the foundation, all of your grants are public.

So, you could look at the 990, see what grants are being given, how you're engaged, and what the website says. You know, Eric, you have things up there. What you're talking about is what you engage in. And sort of piggybacking on that, that could be one thing. It doesn't take too much time; just check that out. 

Another solution could be that there's a community foundation in almost any place you go to visit, and community foundations take a lot of time understanding their community, and no matter what issue you care about, they usually have a fund or other things you don't have to necessarily create a whole DAF. They have little; they have options for you to give; give donations to whatever the big issue is, so there's a lot of options that way.

And even the little things like that. For example, I love going to a state park every year. And when I sign up for the campsite, it asks, do you want to give a donation of just a little bit, like 5 bucks, to help the State Park System? I usually click yes, but if I've done so, like 15 of them, all in a row, then I don't do every single one. But I usually click yes, so there's those kinds of things heavier on the ground, but there's people doing the work on the ground, like you, Eric, where people can lean in. So that being said, in my show notes, if you are somebody who loves Hawai‘i, that's the place you go for rejuvenation. We'll have in the show notes links to some key place’s folks can look for Hawai‘i. With your help, Eric

Awesome. Yeah, absolutely. And thank you. And if you're listening to this, then something tells me that you already kind of intellectually subscribed to this halfway, so thanks for that, you know. Thanks for even considering that civil tourism is something absurd. 80 something percent of our economy—the economic engine, I mean.

So when you come and visit, there are a lot of people who benefit. I wish I could say they all were in Hawai‘i, they are not. So, when you are up to give charitably when you're here, that's the part of your investment that you know will go to Hawai‘i and stay in Hawai‘i. So, it may seem like rounding up, or, you know, at the top of your head thing in a moment, but it is big.

Help. That's right. Great. So. Do you have any last words of wisdom for my audience before we go? This has been a lot of fun.

I don't know if I'll necessarily have the reputation for having the words to listen. I do think this is an excellent opportunity to just be able to share a little bit about it. I would imagine what a lot of destination locations share, and so I don't think this is necessarily a podcast on Hawai‘i. I wonder if it's really a podcast on what it means to be a considerate, thoughtful visitor to a place, and what it means to really try and help in a way that helps communities help themselves that's probably the one thing I'd love for folks to take away from the conversation.

Yep, exactly. Thanks for underscoring that for me. That's perfect. Well, Eric, I can't wait to keep talking to you in the future, seeing as conferences just continue to unpack this really important issue. Thanks for your time.

Thank you, Sybil. Thanks to everyone for listening.