To wrap up Parks and Recreation month in July, we welcome Jeff Kelble, President of Potomac Riverkeeper, to 7 Questions. Before joining Potomac Riverkeeper, Jeff worked for 8 years to build a private small-mouth bass guiding business and a bed and breakfast. After years of fish kills devastated the Shenandoah River’s fishery, he decided to put down his oars to join the fight for the river and its health. Potomac Riverkeeper works to protect the public’s right to clean water in Greater Washington’s rivers and streams.
- What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
I got my start here by establishing a branch of the organization called Shenandoah Riverkeeper about ten years ago. Before that I made my living for almost a decade as a professional fishing guide on the Potomac and other area rivers. Along the way I had developed a nagging feeling that I needed to give back. We were experiencing fish health problems in my primary river, the Shenandoah, which culminated in widespread fish kills my last year as a guide. The ED at the time asked if I was in a position to close my guide business so I could try to figure out why fish were dying and tackle the problems I found along the way. I was the Riverkeeper for nearly ten years before I got kicked upstairs to ED.
- What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
We just pulled off a complete restructuring/rename/re-everything of our organization and are just now getting spit out the other end. After ten years of prosperity, then some flat years, the restructuring seems to have shaken everything lose from program, to fundraising, to board enthusiasm. It took a year of grueling weekly projects to get through it. No small part of the restructuring was doubling down on program staff and trimming bloat in the central office. Ouch! But necessary.
- Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)?
My wife Erika. I know, I hear groans from the chorus, but I promise I’m not trying to get extra credit by saying this! She’s put her own working life on hold to make sure I could step into this position last year and do everything necessary to move the organization to the next level. Neither of us have had an orthodox career and so I can’t wait until I see the opportunity to return the favor, which I will grab in a second.
- What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
Our partnerships with close to 20 private Law Firms, University Environmental Law Clinics and legally oriented nonprofits have developed into our most interesting feature. Most years we nearly TRIPLE our capacity through in-kind donations of legal support by our partners. What makes this critical is that many (not all by any stretch, but many) of the advances in river protections these days come through our courts. Our laws are great, but enforcement and political will to see them through is not so great. Members and donors enjoy seeing their contributions leveraged this way. We turn a dollar into three.
- What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
Keeping things fresh. Everyone seems to fight to keep their staff, volunteers, work and mission fresh. I’ll have to report back because we’ve just come off the re-organization which was an automatic refresh button.
- What advice do you have for other people in your position?
I make no claims to having veteran insight but I might suggest focusing on your PEOPLE. For us, having the right people under our roof has made protecting the Potomac organic. Staff who fit was paramount, the next priority was to make sure everyone was happy, and what makes people happy is different for everyone. If staff are not a good fit, or they’re unhappy, then you can’t put off correcting course.
- What’s next/coming up for you?
Vacation! And some fishing!