Leading an Evolving Organization

Lessons in leadership from Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access.
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Dave McLaughlin, cofounder of Clean Ocean Access.

Dave McLaughlin, cofounder of Clean Ocean Access.

It all started when surfers had trouble parking to gain access to the waves. That same summer, high bacteria counts spiked, closing beaches on Aquidneck Island, home of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth, R.I. The result was a new grassroots organization speaking out for access to clean ocean water. Almost as an afterthought, the group ran a beach cleanup, which sparked community engagement and became a defining feature of Clean Ocean Access, a nonprofit that now raises and spends $1 million annually.

Dave McLaughlin was a surfer who co-founded the group and is now its executive director. He says Aquidneck Island’s challenges offer a small-scale opportunity to test initiatives in outreach, education and solving real-world issues with programs like marina trash skimmers and shrink-wrap recycling.

Founded in 2006, Clean Ocean Access became a nonprofit in 2014. According to McLaughlin, he received his first paycheck 18 months later. Having decided to leave his career in information technology after a bout with cancer, the Newport native committed fully to the group’s vision of a clean, healthy ocean that is accessible to all, and to its mission of inspiring and educating the community to take action through environmentally responsible behaviors.

Like any good IT manager, McLaughlin understands the power of networks in building communities. When I spoke with him, he gave the example in fundraising of starting with “friend-raisers” where you’re happy to break even if it means you bring a few hundred people into alignment with your mission.

McLaughlin says his strategy is to keep an eye on the organization’s vision and be aggressive about goals. “We never achieve our goals in the same timeline,” he says, “but the momentum we build is incredible. At the same time, we have to be realistic about how long things take.”

Persistence and patience are keys to being a good leader, he says, as are always aiming to work with partners and volunteers, and being ready to move with them when they’re ready to take action. In our conversation, he used the word momentum a lot. McLaughlin sees the process of harnessing others’ energy as naturally as a surfer drops in and rides the next wave.

Clean Ocean Access developed a program to utilize discarded shrinkwrap into producing new product.

Clean Ocean Access developed a program to utilize discarded shrinkwrap into producing new product.

Vision Begins in a Dumpster

McLaughlin describes learning to lead with the story of his first day at Newport’s Brick Alley Pub as a 15-year-old summer dishwasher. He was tasked with scrubbing the inside of a dumpster.

“My boss explained the importance of the job to the whole operation,” he says. “That inspired me to know that doing a good job served a greater purpose, ­and later to realize that the most important thing you can do at your first job is to simply do a good job, whatever it is.”

Another lesson came when McLaughlin began working in information technology at Hasbro Toy Co. “My boss asked me to lead a new initiative, and I said I wasn’t familiar with how to do it. He said, ‘That’s OK, we’ve seen how you work, and we trust you.’ That helped plant the seed that leadership isn’t always about knowing what’s going to happen, but about being comfortable charting a course.”

Tag-teaming with Clean Ocean Access co-founder Marty Grimes — then with an expanded leadership group — McLaughlin still found that many decisions early on were made alone. That’s changed with growth of programs, staff and a board of directors. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, McLaughlin says, he’s learned to put the well-being of his staff members first. Different leadership skills are required now, and he has embarked on a study of his management style, driving forces, behaviors and use of emotional intelligence.

Using the Island as a Test Bed

Clean Ocean Access has also evolved. It began as a community group focused on local causes, and it has gained in impact as it built community through outreach and education. With grants from 11th Hour Racing and others, the organization has also undertaken multiyear projects that may scale far beyond the island.

The nonprofit started a marina trash-skimmer program and now has $12,000 units that draw 5 feet, require 8 feet of dock space, run for 50 cents a day and require an unskilled dockhand to empty every day. Equipped with a pump, a zinc and an electrical connection, each skimmer collects 50 to 100 pounds of litter a day. The water pump creates a surface current that brings water and litter into the skimmer, and pumps oxygen into the water, breaking down oil sheen and hydrocarbons.

The Clean Ocean team on a pile of discarded shrinkwrap, ready for recycling.

The Clean Ocean team on a pile of discarded shrinkwrap, ready for recycling.

Another project started when McLaughlin noticed a pile of discarded shrinkwrap (low-density polyethylene, or LDPE) outside a nearby sail loft. Given the nonprofit’s focus on plastic recycling, his team was soon looking for ways to recycle shrinkwrap that misses the R.I. Marine Trades program, which supports 50 area boatyards and marinas. Next, they applied for grants to explore development of a circular economy, so recycled LDPE could be sustainably used in producing new LDPE.

The same thinking underpins Healthy Soils Healthy Seas, a project to create behavior change by persuading people to separate food scraps (roughly a third of residential waste). Composting generates awareness of and responsibility for the materials we use, keeping more waste out of the oceans, McLaughlin says. Composting also reduces landfill and associated methane, and supports nature’s own best recipe for sequestering carbon back into the earth.

Projects like composting might seem beyond the essential mission of Clean Ocean Access, but McLaughlin says, “These are global issues, and Aquidneck Island is our test bed. If we all started putting compost on our lawns here, you would have much more vegetation and ecosystem biodiversity. We might have to buy more washer fluid because there would be more bugs on the windshield, but it would be a healthy environment.”

Promoting Marine Industry Change

McLaughlin, when speaking about the need for the marine industry to change its practices, takes a broad view on sustainability. He emphasizes the need for behavioral change to promote circular economies as a means of supporting a clean, accessible ocean. He adds that because Clean Ocean Access cares that all people enjoy the ocean, it would be a natural partner for any marine company.

“As a partner, COA can facilitate difficult conversations,” McLaughlin says, “bringing together people with hope and optimism with whom we can figure things out for the betterment of the business and the environment. Each part of any industry has its own waste footprint. We need to work together to take small but intentional steps to be as responsible as possible with the materials that we’re using.”

In a practical sense, McLaughlin is atop his figurative surfboard, looking seaward for the next partner and the next wave of energy to bring to the Clean Ocean Access mission. 

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.

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