Punching above your weight for positive impact.
How do a small and remote team of surfers humanise technology to make global changes? We asked Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage.
“The noise has to connect together to generate a result. Noise can be very exciting, but it is only really useful if it is part of a journey with impact.”
At Dootrix, we’ve been helping Surfers Against Sewage to re-think what their Safer Seas & Rivers Service app could be and could do, so I spoke to their CEO Hugo Tagholm about how a small organisation, based on the North Cornish coast, uses digital tools to spread their global message.
Surfers Against Sewage was formed in 1990, the year before the first webpage was launched, so as Hugo wryly admits “the pace was very different.” Formed, as the name suggests, as a single issue pressure group, SAS quickly made a big impact far beyond the beaches of Cornwall.
Over the last decade, under Hugo’s stewardship, SAS has grown to be a powerful lobbying and community action charity, and is now recognised as one of the brightest voices on a wide range of marine conservation issues (‘not just surfers and not just sewage’), with nationwide membership and international influence.
Hugo is immediately circumspect about the influence of social media: “Back in the 90’s our only touchpoint for our supporters and for the issues being promoted was our membership magazine that was sent to people through the snail mail. Although Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been amazing to reach far more people, they are also very content-hungry; so they put a whole different pressure on the organisation, both good and bad.
“I don’t think social media is all good. I would say there is a lot of it that is superfluous, which isn’t always very impactful, but the things that are not superfluous are really, really important.”
“At every stage, you have to really think about why you are posting stuff, why you are creating content and creating the stories, and you have to always ensure that everything links back to your mission, your strategy and your projects.”
DOOTRIX How did you discover that? Was it trial and error?
HUGO “Yes. Nobody has been schooled in any of this formally, but we have learnt throughout the evolution of SAS. Our website has seen numerous iterations and has become much, much more about a supporter journey — a two-way conversation — and less about just telling people stuff and presenting big blocks of information.”
“It is about interaction, it is about creating a conversation, it is about really listening to people, as well as communicating to people. You want to create that dynamic, because, if you have that dynamic, you create a much more passionate supporter base, a much higher level of traction with the people who we work with — and that is what any organisation or business wants; it is the same in any sphere.”
DOOTRIX Listening to and creating conversations is the holy grail of social media marketing so what specific things do you do to ensure that you’re really listening to people? How does that work in practice?
HUGO “I would probably say how we use our network of regional reps, because we can’t be the authority on every beach, in every location. So we create a two-way dialogue and we use social media platforms for that. We use groups within Facebook to create a peer group network and solicit the content and ideas, and hear what each region is saying. So we are really seeing, from those grassroots communities what they experience on the ground, whether it is plastic pollution or sewage pollution or a concern about any aspect of marine conservation, and then we can respond to that.”
“The social media platforms create an even faster conversation than even email, and it is not just a much faster conversation but also much less formal. It is absolutely, ‘Right, this is the raw feeling and emotion and this is what I want to tell you. How are you going to respond?’ And you do it. So that is beautiful. It can also be challenging with the sheer volume of it.”
DOOTRIX: With an activist organisation like SAS, does that sense of urgency and immediacy help in terms of getting people excited about it? If a letter comes through your door, you can ignore it, put it on the pin board, you think about it later. If you are involved in a Tweet storm, does that actually help activism?
HUGO “Yes, I think it can help activism, deployed in the right way. It has got to be a journey too. It has got to be part of a journey that has a clear start, middle and end, and people have to understand that whole process.
“Any organisation or charity can create a spike in interest about something by using sensationalist or alarmist or very direct language. But, unless it is part of an actual journey of where you want to get to and towards the change you want to see created, then it is just a spike of noise, basically.
“The noise has to connect together to generate a result. Noise can be very exciting, but it is only really useful if it is part of a journey with impact.”
DOOTRIX With that in mind how do you cover SAS’s multiple objectives — lobbying campaigns, fundraising, education and awareness?
HUGO “We are a small team still, so there is only so much we can do, and we are very direct in all of the conversations and everything is interlinked. It is not just campaigns, it is not just fundraising; they are all part of the same machine. If you divide it, you create competition internally with the different aspects of the business. That’s really unhelpful, not what supporters want to see and it doesn’t generate a strong business.”
“As part of any project or any issue, you want to make sure that the supporter journey will involve, maybe a petition, maybe you can go to a beach clean, maybe you can fundraise around that. If you separate them out, you can’t really create a cohesive message.“
“We — the senior team — have learnt that it is really important that we don’t see ourselves as separate parts of the organisation. You have got to have individual responsibilities, but it is one jigsaw puzzle that is all interconnected, and it is important the journey happens like that with our supporters.”
“One of the problems we have is that there are lots of good ideas and lots of people want to implement stuff, but one idea can suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere for the next idea, if you are not careful. So saying nothing is distinctly part of having a strong organisation too, because otherwise you could wear everyone out and then go, ‘I want to re-rally the troops again,’ and everyone goes, ‘We’re knackered, we can’t do it.’”
“The Holy Grail for us, as for any business, is to have a great product. In our case whether it is beach cleans or awareness-raising apps or lobbying campaigns, they all have to be connected so they can become sustainable fundraising tools as well. Otherwise, effectively, you just become a volunteering group.”
“‘Financial’ and ‘Fundraising’ can be dirty words in charity, because if there is a separation from the central mission, they see it as a separate discipline, and it is not. It is a connected discipline, a vital discipline to be able to achieve what you want to achieve.”
“Any good businesses that creates great products, charities included, need the resourcing to be able to do that, and I would always contest, as a leader of a charity in the (horribly named) third sector, why should everything be done on a shoestring? Let’s create brilliant projects that are properly resourced, that have great backers, that can attract the public and give them something they really want to make the change they want.”
“So we have always had the notion of trying to create brilliant things for brilliant communities, for them to engage in the issues we all care about.”
DOOTRIX You hear a lot about ‘clicktivism’ and the idea that it is actually quite easy to Tweet something or sign an online petition or just like something or share a post on Facebook. Does that then absolve a lot of people from actually having to go and do a beach clean or go and do some actual bucket-shaking type fundraising. Has that been an issue for SAS? Do you find there is a distance to people’s interaction?
HUGO “Yes, absolutely, and I think there can be a falseness to it, if you are not careful. The problem is, you can reach a lot of people, but what does that actually turn into? To use a business term, you would always want to look at what is the conversion rate? What does it really mean? What does that person become in terms of your mission, in the long term? I think, sadly, with some of the really big petitions and things, you see a conversion rate of tiny percentages, maybe 1%, maybe not even 1%, maybe 0.5%.”
“What you really want is a really close relationship to your supporters where you understand each other, so they are with you for the long term, and that would be the same as the customer of a brand, the loyalty that you want to breed. It is not a cynical thing, it is that you are doing something they truly believe in and you are doing the right things and you are trying to make the right choices.”
“I think the problem with the social media world is, because of the speed of it, people have an expectancy of the speed of the solutions.”
“We see lots of really, really great projects, but people immediately think of the solution that comes up on things like Facebook. So we have seen, recently, the plastic-eating worm, which makes people think that it’s OK to keep using single use plastics. We see all sorts of things, and they are great stories and great emerging solutions, but they are not yet the solution.”
“The problem with the social media bubble is people automatically say, ‘Well, it’s fine, there is a worm that is going to eat all our marine plastic. We’re all good. Let’s carry on consuming,’ or they will say, ‘We will turn all of the plastic into boardshorts and bikinis and we will be fine,’ but they don’t think about the full 360 degree view of where that project is at and where it might lead.”
“Big change takes a lot of time to deliver. For example, back in ’91 when we first started, we pushed on a big piece of European environmental legislation to help us in our mission for cleaner seas. So, you are talking 14 years of repeatedly pointing at several pieces of legislation to say, ‘We want to see that investment now.’”
DOOTRIX I guess that neatly leads to the question of how you persuade people to support SAS with their cash when you can support SAS by retweeting and liking stuff on Facebook?
HUGO “As I said, there is a whole psychology in the supporter journey with donations and direct debits and social media has changed everything for charities. We probably had 15,000 members back in 1995/6; ans we have now expanded that into 300,000 regular supporters who we are in contact with all of the time. We have got probably 12,000 + paying members, so slightly fewer paying members, but they are on with us for the longer term, committed to the charity and our mission.”
“We have changed the whole offer, because the exclusivity that we give is to support the mission of the coastline. I am not here to give people free pairs of sunglasses or shorts, or whatever, as they join, or a ticket to this or the other. Their commitment is a commitment to the cause. They don’t want anything else from us. That is the ultimate supporter.”
“They want to be kept up-to-date with the mission, so we give a really good magazine, Pipeline, that is no longer something just to tell people dates about what is happening, but talking about setting an editorial vision, a strategic vision, a long-term vision for the organisation, something that adds value to the overloaded on social media. And, actually, it is quite nice to have a tactile thing in your hands that you read, that you see things a bit more slowly. People want a bit of that slow-living approach.”
DOOTRIX Have you found that that kind of approach has increased membership retention?
HUGO “Absolutely. I would say, in the history of the charity at the moment, we are having the best retention and we have got the biggest recruitment rate that we have ever had. We will be far in excess of all of our targets, and that comes because, as I described earlier, we have got this good connection between all of the disciplines in the charity. We are not fragmented. Membership and merchandise does not sit over there with beach cleaners and campaigners over here. We are SAS and they all sit in the middle.”
“It is a combined message; the merchandise itself conveys the message of plastic-free coastlines or lower emissions; the membership is about the support for the work we do on the ground, and that 360 degree view is really, really important. We are working together as a unit and, without that approach, we would fail, basically.”
DOOTRIX That is a really nice lesson that we can take for lots of businesses as well. Obviously political lobbying is a really important part of SAS’ mission. From a digital point of view, have you seen the efficacy of your work being helped or improved in any way, particularly by digital?
HUGO “Yes. Twitter is an amazing place to actually connect with influencers very directly — government ministers tweeting and retweeting, sucking people in — is a really good way of reaching people. Politically, it is very easy to create lobbying moments, political activism for people to contact their MPs and get them involved in different campaigns, particularly beach cleans. So we see lots of MPs coming to our beach cleans, lots of MPs tweeting images of them with our communities, doing some environmental work on the beach. So that has been very effective.”
Facebook, probably less so. I feel that, in some ways, we have come through peak Facebook. It is still brilliant for listening to local reps, but I am not sure of people’s full appetite for it in perpetuity. We know that Instagram is also a very good point of engagement for us; people are very image-led, of course, so it helps.
For the Global Wave Conference last year, we connected with people from all four continents around the world on Instagram So we had people from Australia and America and South America, all getting involved because of Instagram posts. (legendary big wave surfers) Brad Gerlach, Ramón Navarro and Greg Long heard about it via Instagram and then they are suddenly there in Cornwall, involved with us, which is great. In 1990, when SAS started, we would rarely have been able to access those kind of people.
[Brad Gerlach, Ramón Navarro and Greg Long at the Global Waves Conference in Cornwall.]
DOOTRIX It seems to me that, through the power of social media, you guys punch above your weight in Westminster, so how much of that is a force of digital tools? I don’t just mean social media, I mean things like the official government petitions and 38 Degrees campaign platform.
HUGO “I think we punch above our weight in all departments, not just politically. We are a small organisation, we are 12 people, but we have got a really good structure. We have got a small executive with a big footprint, and all of our local activists, as it were, our regional reps, our volunteers now organise the biggest beach clean operation in the UK, over 30,000 volunteers it will be this year, contributing millions of minutes of volunteering time to their cause.”
“In some ways, I think SAS is probably not at, but close to optimum size, because there is a directness that we have. There is a directness corrected to the people. As you know, our offices overlook the sea. You and I have paddled around in the bay, chatting. For me, that directness is something we will never lose. We are passionate about the sea. We use the sea. So do our members, so do our volunteers, so do our supporters. They are not just surfers. We have surfing as part of the organisation, but we certainly don’t want it to be seen as an exclusive thing, because people sometimes can be quite scared of the surfing clique. We are not that.”
“Of course, we do know all the world champions like Kelly Slater and Tom Curren, and we do lots of great stuff with them, but we use surfing within the charity sector to win hearts and minds, and I think that is why we are pretty successful in what we do.”
“I also believe in the bang for the buck; we are good at creating strong, impactful campaigns at a reasonable cost. So, politically speaking, yes, we definitely punch above our weight, but I think the combination of sports and the environment and environmentalism has been really good for us to access the hearts and minds of Westminster, and we have got a good political pedigree.”
“We have worked politically in the Houses of Parliament from the very early days of SAS, so we have always seen Westminster as fundamental to creating change. Whereas in 1990/1, we weren’t creating legislation, now we are creating legislation, so the plastic bag charge, with other charities we collaborated to do that. Now we are working on plastic bottle deposits. So it is an onward march and one that we have to strike the right balance between resource and ability.”
DOOTRIX I suspect there is something to be learnt from the fact that you guys have learnt to play within the system, setting up all parliamentary groups, actually the way of lobbying MPs. I like the fact that you guys will turn up in ties and suits when called for, but also turn up to the Houses of parliament in your wetsuits. So your ‘within and without’ methodology probably helps a lot, doesn’t it?
HUGO “Yes. There is a distinct thing of how we do that. I would say to our supporters, there are a lot of important things we do when we are in ties and suits, where sometimes we share it with supporters. Generally speaking, they are not necessarily interested in that execution from us.”
“They wouldn’t be so interested in seeing a picture of me with a government minister or Prince Charles in a suit, talking about things. It might be part of the story. They are more interested in the real issues on the ground, and that is why, I think, we are successful because of the reality; the visceral stark issues that we represent, and people know we are engaged with them.”
“We are not just deskbound, opinion-formers who have never touched the sea. Indeed, we are people who are, no doubt, going to the sea at lunchtime today or after work, and that keeps it, for want of a better cliché, really real.”
DOOTRIX If you were giving advice to senior leaders, CEOs and team leaders, the real buzz thing that everybody wants to do and everybody struggles to do is how do you build and maintain teams, particularly remote teams — people working in different offices and working remotely? What would be your advice for using digital tools, or the combination or real world and digital tools, for building and maintaining teams?
HUGO “We have the several methods for reaching the grassroots of regional reps. There are closed forums for them to share their ideas before they test them to the public. So you create a peer group network and that support network. I think, also, bringing people together through all of the brilliance of the digital world and what we are doing now, on Skype, actual face-to-face and time together is invaluable. Never overlook that.”
“I would say that a really strong event, and although you can have too many events these days, bringing your team together in the right space with the right constructive sessions and the right social sessions, I think is invaluable to create the harmony and direction for an organisation. We saw the pivotal and absolutely step-changing effect of the Global Wave Conference for us as an organisation, because we brought people from around the world to share their stories, to meet each other and talk about what we wanted to see for the protection of oceans and beaches around the world, and obviously surf spots.”
DOOTRIX It felt like a big step up.
HUGO “A big step up, and that was because we had the right people in the room. I think that, once you get to know people like that, you can’t turn back, whereas you can easily turn back from social media conversation.”
“You can accelerate into being quite friendly with somebody on social media, and then it can just drop away, like an abyss. Actually, that is the comparative I would use between the digital and the real world. Real world contact is vital.”
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