A Historic Nonprofit Reaches Out to ACT

David Lewis, the long-time head of Save the Bay, felt the upcoming 50th anniversary of the organization was a good time to update Save the Bay’s strategic plan.

October 15, 2011


A sunny day at beautiful wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Save the Bay is an iconic grass roots Bay Area environmental not-for-profit now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Save the Bay was founded by three local women alarmed by development plans to fill in the shoreline around much of San Francisco Bay.

Save the Bay’s early activism won a moratorium against placing fill in the Bay and was responsible for the State’s establishment of an Agency to regulate shoreline development and protect public access to the Bay. With over ten thousand members, Save the Bay has successfully fought expansion by the likes of the San Francisco Airport and is known as a thought leader on proper wetlands management.

David Lewis, the long-time head of Save the Bay, felt the upcoming 50th anniversary of the organization was a good time to update Save the Bay’s strategic plan. His goal was to have the new five-year plan be ambitious, useful, and to reflect the challenges the organization faced both in the near and longer term (such as sea level rise due to global warming). Their challenges included the fall-off in giving that many non-profits have faced during the recession, as well as a local population that does not directly interact with the Bay.

Save the Bay kayaks

“With our anniversary, I felt we had a historic opportunity to plan to grow membership, fundraising, and impact” David said. “We wanted to ensure our strategic plan didn’t just sit on the shelf, and wasn’t going to recommend business as usual.”

Familiar with the professional quality consulting work provided by Stanford Business School Alumni Consulting Teams, Save the Bay submitted an application to ACT for a strategic planning project. A team of eleven ACT consultants was formed and they worked for 5 months. During the course of the project, ACT interviewed more than 50 people from staff and board members of local and national comparable organizations. From the interviews and data, ACT found Save the Bay compared well with national organizations, such as Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in many areas and showed room for improvement in others.

ACT’s Controversial Recommendation

In addition to its advocacy work and advisory white papers that many other similar environmental organizations rely on, Save the Bay fostered direct contact with the Bay’s ecosystem through volunteer and school trips for wetlands restoration (removing non-native vegetation) and canoeing trips in the Bay, termed “Canoes in Sloughs.” When reviewing Save the Bay’s operations, the ACT team looked to see what other local organizations overlapped with Save the Bay’s goals and operations. They found that several other local organizations, such as the Marine Science Institute, also offered wetlands educational opportunities and were serving a larger audience.

The ACT team concluded that Save the Bay could better meet its goals by narrowing the organization’s focus to areas of unique strength. They recommended that Save the Bay de-emphasize, or altogether eliminate the popular “Canoes in Sloughs” program. This recommendation stirred debate at Save the Bay - getting people “onto” the Bay was seen as core to its mission. It was also a regular activity to which corporate donors could contribute without feeling they were funding Save the Bay’s advocacy activities. And, a not insignificant concern, several Save the Bay staff members were responsible for the program and would have to be reassigned.

David Lewis, Executive Director said: “Based on the Stanford GSB ACT recommendation, we actually went back and evaluated Canoes vs. other programs in terms of how well they advanced our core mission. The final version of our revised strategic plan included: “Environmental education is important for long-term environmental progress in the Bay Area, but ‘Canoes In Sloughs’ is not a priority goal for Save The Bay. We have identified other supporting strategies that will be more effective at producing urgent priority protection and restoration outcomes for the Bay.”

A Popular Program Eliminated

In the one-year follow-up to ACT’s study and recommendations, Save the Bay reported that they had followed over 85% of the recommendations of the ACT team. Save the Bay had taken the difficult step of transferring the “Canoes in Sloughs” program to The Marine Science Institute and East Bay Regional Parks. Executive Director, David Lewis said that while the transfer was controversial internally, it was better received by funders, and did not result in a reduction in donations. “For many donors, it was the first time a nonprofit had approached them to say they were reducing the number of services offered or more directly collaborating with complementary organizations, and they applauded the discipline and focus that were behind the decision,” he said.

Save the Bay still has many challenges ahead to keep the inland waters of the Bay Area healthy – their current battles are against plastic bags and a large Redwood City residential development on former salt ponds. But thanks to ACT, the updated five year strategic plan that is guiding them is a relevant and helpful aid.

Save the Bay Consulting Engagement

Challenge: Save the Bay, local environmental nonprofit, needed a refresh of their five-year strategic plan on their 50th anniversary which would incorporate aggressive growth targets in fundraising, membership, and impact, also incorporating longer term goals.

Solution: ACT helped Save the Bay create their new strategic plan to focus their efforts which included eliminating a popular, but resource intensive “Canoes in Sloughs” educational program.

Results: Save the Bay has implemented over 85% of ACT’s recommendations across their wetlands restoration and advocacy operations, including the transferring of the “Canoes in Sloughs” program to a complementary organization (the Marine Science Institute). STB did not lose the donations expected as a result of this decision.

ACT Consultants

  • Steve Bowling, MBA ’68
  • Russell Hamilton, co-lead, MBA ’01
  • Bill Hudson, MBA ’77
  • Michael Kaplan, MBA ’92
  • Maya Lisak, MBA ’08
  • Karl Matzke, co-lead, SEP ’93
  • Horacio Pleno, MBA ’75
  • John Rafter, MBA ’88
  • Jim Sandstrom, SEP ’80
  • Tom Scannell, MBA ’77
  • Dan Spiegelman, MBA ’83

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More

June 19, 2024

Habitat CEO to Stanford GSB Graduates: “Values Are the Foundation”

Jonathan Reckford, in commencement address, offers insights about weathering “storms” of life
June 13, 2024

Experts Share Ideas on Balancing Innovation and Competition in the AI Industry

Policymakers, industry leaders, and scholars met at Stanford to discuss AI regulation, fairness, and creators’ rights.
June 10, 2024

Stanford’s Inaugural Business, Government, and Society Forum Explores the Changing Role of Leadership

Stanford GSB hosts a wide-ranging forum on responsible leadership in a polarized world.
Credit: SF Photo Agency