A man with a mission to save a billion baby turtles.Posted on by Sarah Lafontaine
Every once in awhile we meet up with someone so completely selfless and dedicated to a cause that it leaves us feeling inspired and renewed. That’s exactly what happened when we sat down with Brad Nahill of SEE Turtles.
Upon leaving Pennsylvania State University with a degree in Environmental Economics Brad knew he needed real world experience to give him an edge on his peers. This realization took him on a path to discovering a sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica. Brad packed his passport, jumped on a plane, and began a journey that would change thousands of lives.
We are excited to share our conversation with Brad, and share the challenges, accomplishments, and rewards that go along with starting a non-profit organization.
What was your background before starting SEE Turtles & Billion Baby Turtles?
I started out in this field as a volunteer. When I was in college, I got a degree in Environmental Economics and knew that when I graduated pretty much everything I knew was books and magazines. I didn’t really have any real world knowledge [and] I wanted to get some hands-on experience. I went online and I searched for wildlife projects that I could volunteer with. Not being a biologist, there wasn’t a ton of opportunities, but there were a bunch of sea turtle conservation opportunities. So, I was like, “All right, turtles, that sounds great!” I didn’t know anything about them but it seemed like fun, so I got on an airplane and went to Costa Rica for about 6 weeks. [I] figured “Ah, that’s my fun time abroad” and I [had] it for my resume, so now I could go back and get a job in the US.
I had an internship in DC for a few months but I had this picture of Costa Rica and I just stared at it every day. I ended up going back again, volunteered again, I met my eventual wife at a project in Costa Rica. We ended up running some projects together. So in all, I spent about 2 years in the country in chunks, working with different projects and things like that and gaining a lot of experience. I didn’t really make much, if any, money at all.
I came back to the US and got a job with a group called Ocean Conservancy doing grant writing. That’s where I met J [Wallace J. Nichols], Ocean Conservancy had hired him as the sea turtle expert. As I was helping him launch [SEE Turtles], it became obvious that I had some experience in tourism and he had a whole bunch going on, so I ended up taking over the project and that’s kind of how it got started.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own organization?
I think the best advice is to really figure out your niche. There are so many groups out there doing so many different things, and to be able to be effective, to be able to fundraise and set yourself apart you really have to be able to show what your impact is going to be. That’s what we did. [W]e said “Our niche is that we’re going to help all these different projects around Latin America by helping bring people to the places, helping with their funding by bringing people to these places, because they all need volunteer help, they all need funding but a lot of the smaller ones don’t really have marketing teams, or marketing expertise, so it was clear where our niche was.
What do you find is the most common misconception people have about volunteering with a program or non-profit?
When people sign up for these kinds of things, in a lot of cases they have this very romantic notion of going to a moonlit tropical beach, working with these beautiful endangered animals, and in people’s minds, it is very “idyllic”. When you get to the ground, that’s not always how it is.
The reality of field work is, it’s raining [and] you’re still walking on the beach. There [are] bugs. Walking on sand is hard- it’s soft sand, you’ve got to be in shape. You’re out patrolling until the early hours of the morning and then you’re not really getting a lot of sleep the next day.
[A]fter a little while what we figured out was that we had to put all the bad stuff up front, you gotta weed the people out that are looking for a vacation where they do a little bit of stuff, to really find the people that are there to do the work and that can put up with the bugs, the work, the humidity, and in some cases, very rural rustic accommodations. We found that by doing that we were able to get a higher quality volunteer.
With these kinds of things, I find the best thing to do is set expectations. If people are expecting something and not getting what they think they’re supposed to be getting, that’s where you end up with a problem.
What has been your greatest accomplishment since starting SEE Turtles & Billion Baby Turtles?
Six or seven years ago, the population was considered by a lot of people — biologists in the field — to be functionally extinct, and nobody really thought that there were any left. But there was a local organization, that was actually his family that traveled from Mexico all the way to Peru, stopping at all these places along the way and through they found these nesting beaches that had a significant amount of turtles nesting that nobody had known about before. We have provided about $40,000 over the past few years [to the organization], to help protect just about all the [hawksbill] eggs [along the Pacific Coast of the Americas].We’ve sent travelers to these places, we’ve sent volunteers, we’ve done some educational programs with them, and we really feel like we’re having a significant impact. These are communities where people are making on average $100 a month, so by collecting by one nest, they can make maybe $30 or $40, so they can actually make well above the average in the area by working in conservation, so that’s been a great thing for us to be able to participate.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced since starting SEE Turtles & Billion Baby Turtles?
Well, you know, so (laughs) the biggest challenge we faced is that we launched it right around the time of the recession when tourism dropped off a cliff and donations dropped off a cliff. It was the absolute worst time to be starting a project like the one we were starting. Although, we were really fortunate to have some donors that had [understood] what we were doing and backed us for several years [until] we could get through and the economy started to recover, tourism started going up again, and we were able to accomplish enough to keep our donors happy and to keep it going.
Another one of the challenges we face is, in the sea turtle world, I think this is probably applicable to broader conservation, when we were creating agreements with these local organizations, we were trying to gauge our impacts on their efforts. There were some organizations that were nervous about sharing data. There was a lot of convincing and for some, it sounded too good to be true. It’s like “you want to promote our project, you want to send people there and you want to give us money? Okay…what’s the catch.” We had to do some initial relationship building to make that happen.
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
I guess the behind the scenes stuff, like when we were with Ocean Conservancy, it’s a very traditional organization. We were trying to start something new and innovative and they were like “Alright, well when you’re doing this you have to get a graphic designer, you have to print out all these brochures” and I spent a lot of my initial money working with this graphic design firm that they had worked with before. [We] had printed up all these materials and I ended up recycling most of that stuff, you know I had a couple of events and handed out some of [it], but it wasn’t the way we should have been doing it.
The other thing I think I would have done sooner is: in the last couple of years, we started running the tours ourselves, collecting the money, working with the local operators, kind of acting more like an outbound operator. For years, we were doing a commission basis kind of thing, where we would find the operators that were doing the trips, then send people to them and get a commission back, and so the way that we’re doing it now, we’re getting more people committing.
What are the plans for SEE Turtles & Billion Baby Turtles moving forward?
I think we’ll continue to focus on sponsors, tours, school fundraising, individuals.
With the tours, we may add in some new sites. We have 3 sites that are doing really well for us in Costa Rica and Belize.
We are in the early phases of starting a campaign to try to educate the tourism industry and travelers going to Latin America about tortoise shell jewelry — it’s actually sea turtle. It can be found in tourist destinations all around the region. Our goal is to bring on a bunch of tour operators that will help us by sharing these materials with people before they go. We’ll do a big outreach campaign with videos and graphics and work with some of our local partners in these tourist hotspots where it’s a major issue to try to reduce the demand for these products.
Describe yourself in one word: Driven
“This is my dream job, if I could do this for the rest of my life I’ll be completely happy with it. We have the vision, we have the foundation, I feel like it’s time to just focus in and build and grow.” — Brad Nahill.