The Man Behind the Mission – A Chat with David Lewis, Executive Director for Save The Bay

Our fearless leader, David Lewis, celebrates his 19th Anniversary at Save The Bay this month. To honor this occasion, David’s colleague and friend, Robin Erickson, CFO, sat down for a chat to hear about his motivations, what keeps him up at night, and how he’s changed as a leader over nearly two decades.

David Lewis, Executive Director of Save The Bay. Photo: Mike Oria
I’ve worked for this man for 12 years. That’s 3,000 days in the office together. (OK, we’ve taken a few vacations in there, but you get the idea). And when I think about why I’m still at Save The Bay, David Lewis is at the forefront. I’ve never stopped learning from David. About our fascinating Bay, about politics and history, and random Latin phrases I really wish I could remember (and have no idea how he does). In the 12 years I’ve known David, he’s never slowed down. He leads by example. He cares about the people who work for him. He welcomes differing opinions. He doesn’t get defensive when you point out mistakes. He’s the first to sign up for kitchen cleaning duty. I respect David a lot. So I was honored to sit down with him and ask him a few questions. Robin: What’s the best part of your job? David: A rare part of the job – being on the Bay, which I get to do when I’m participating in tours with donors or stakeholders. I’m lucky to see it from my office window (and my house), but it’s not the same. Experiencing the Bay be it walking, hiking, biking, sitting on the beach, kayaks, volunteering in a wetland restoration, etc. is inspiring and it’s what drives me to get up and go to work every day. Robin: What’s the hardest part of your job? David: Seeing more opportunities for Save The Bay to protect and restore the Bay than we have people and resources for. We have to be very strategic because there are way more things to work on than we are able. Robin: How have you changed as a leader in 19 years?  David: I’ve developed more confidence to make changes that need to be made. Earlier on I wasn’t always able to recognize when change was needed and act quickly. And I’ve realized the importance of hiring the best people available. Your effectiveness as a leader depends most on the people you hire. I’ve also become more comfortable delegating work, like some writing tasks and funder relationships. Robin: When the going gets tough, what values and practices do you lean on to get you through your day? David: Do something. When things get overwhelming it can seem paralyzing. I try to do the most important thing, but if that isn’t obvious I at least try to do something. It’s about action. It’s important to plan and to build alignment and consensus, but you can’t let that get in the way of making the call or having the meeting. What organizations and individuals do is more important than what they are “for.” Robin: Where have you seen the most impact in environmental conservation in the Bay Area in the last 19 years? David: When environmentalists truly partner and enlist other constituencies they have the most impact. There’s a saying, “Winning advocacy is about addition.” We have who we have, but how do we get who we need that we don’t yet have on our side? Measure AA is a great example.  There wasn’t any doubt that we would gain environmental leaders’ and organizations’ support, but we were going to need support from a two-thirds majority of 3.5 million registered voters. That required support from people who care about the Bay but don’t primarily identify as environmentalists —  business leaders, labor unions, community organizations, elected officials. That’s why it took 10 years. In the Bay Area we’ve done most of the easy stuff. Hard stuff requires building alliances and support outside our core constituency. Robin: Like many conservation nonprofits, Save The Bay has survived decades of climate deniers and low funding prioritization. Today’s political climate creates more hurdles for nonprofits like us, how will Save The Bay survive for another 50+ years? David: What you said about climate deniers is true in general but less true in the Bay Area and on the issue of the Bay. People here are mostly not climate deniers, they have concern for the environment and pride in the Bay, and we are a wealthy region overall, so it’s not as much of a challenge for us to tell that story (and be believed) as it is for environmental organizations in other parts of the country. A bigger challenge is that there are a lot of important causes competing for attention and support here (and the overall number of conservation donors is still a small fraction compared with other nonprofit causes). One of Save The Bay’s advantages, if we use it, is that our issue is visible and beloved. But when people look at it, the Bay looks beautiful, so we have to work harder to explain that the Bay isn’t saved: it is still threatened by pollution, climate change, and population growth in the region, and if we don’t continue to protect and restore it, it won’t support our economy or the lifestyle Bay Area residents love. Robin: If a million dollars landed in our lap, what would Save The Bay work on? David: I’d have Save The Bay work in more cities for our Bay Smart Communities program. It’s a new program that we’ve just launched that focuses on the importance of greening Bay Area communities to ensure a clean and healthy Bay.  We’re focusing on two cities to start with – Oakland and San Mateo – because we can’t be in too many places at the same time and know we can make a valuable impact in communities there. Long-term, I want us to be able to make a difference all around the Bay. I want us to make a bigger impact and faster… which requires a lot more money. Robin: The Bay Area is the world leader in technological development. How has technology changed since you started at Save The Bay and what difference has it made? David: On the plus side, technology gives us efficiency and power so we are able to reach more people to share our story and ultimately broaden support. The danger is when it becomes a crutch and barrier to personal contact because it’s often the personal contact that brings results. For example, we just got a first-time six-figure gift from a funder. I developed a phone relationship with a program officer, they spent two hours attending one of our restoration programs, and Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball and I made an in-person presentation to their board. If I had limited my efforts to just email we wouldn’t have had the same result, but it was a multi-touch approach and the ability to have face-to-face time that helped us secure that support. What I’ve learned is that every person likes to be contacted in different ways, for some, a phone call stands out more because email volume can be overwhelming, for others, they use text and social media to connect. A big advantage we have as a local organization with a volunteer program is that we can have that in-person contact, and that in-person time is priceless. Robin: What keeps you awake at night? David: Trump, lately. I worry about what the last election means for the future of our planet, our country, and our Bay. I’m still a pretty good sleeper, though. Robin: What do you do when you’re not working? David: I am fortunate to live on the edge of Tilden Park in the East Bay. I love to hike local trails and my dog loves it too because he can be off leash. I learned to ski after I was 40, which was difficult but (eventually) very rewarding. This year the snow came back after years of drought and low snowpack, so I’ve enjoyed some epic skiing with my family. Robin: What advice would you give to yourself at 20?  David: Work less, travel more. Robin: Why that advice? David: I grew up in the Bay Area, which is a great place, but not typical of the country or the world. Then I worked for 15 years in Washington, DC, which is also a great place, but pretty insular and sheltered “inside the Beltway”. I became a much more effective advocate by working on cleanup and shutdown of nuclear weapons production facilities with local activists. This was in remote places like Paducah, Kentucky, Amarillo, Texas, Eastern Washington state, and rural Ohio and Tennessee. That was tough territory. People working in those places had to be clever, efficient, and collaborative to be successful. By contrast, we live in a place where you can get 1,000 people to give you $25/year for almost any cause. It’s almost impossible to run an organization into the ground here because people here are well-off and generous and progressive. My travel to those other places made me appreciate what effective advocacy requires. Travel and exposure to more people and places has made me appreciate the advantages I have and the challenges other people face, so I can quickly get into that “don’t mourn – organize” mindset, appreciate the great advantages I have as a person, and we have as an organization. No whining! Robin: Have you given that advice to your kids? David: My girls have traveled way more than I did at their age (more credit to their mom than me). They don’t need me to give them that advice. Robin: What gives you hope? David: My kids. Young people, generally. We’ve had an incredible parade of talented people – staff and fellows – passing through the organization, bringing great work and energy and going on to other challenges. They become ambassadors for Save The Bay. Our Fellows Program is one of the best additions we’ve made at Save The Bay. It gives me hope.