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Adam Green: Strategies by Rocking the Boat Nonprofit Founder

What can an award-winning youth development nonprofit from the South Bronx teach us about influence? In this Art of Sway episode, Rocking the Boat’s founder Adam Green shares his unique strategies for engaging and empowering young people through experiential learning, community building, and collaboration.

Rocking the Boat is a Bronx-based nonprofit that uses boatbuilding and environmental education to empower young people from low-income communities. Their mission is to help these young people develop the skills, self-confidence, and sense of community that they need to succeed in life.

Adam started the volunteer project that would become Rocking the Boat in 1995 during a semester off from Vassar College, influenced by his experience teaching kids about the Hudson River aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Rocking the Boat now engages over 200 teens per year in a series of STEM-based programs that last throughout their high school careers and into college. Through his work developing Rocking the Boat, Adam has received an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Union Square Award for grassroots organizing, a Manhattan Institute Social Entrepreneurship Award, and was a 2014 CNN Hero.

This episode is such a great reminder of the positive impact that nonprofit organizations can have on their communities, and how marketing can be used for social good!

A few highlights from our conversation:

  • The need for a ‘genuine, authentic purpose’ for community participation and learning
  • Why hands-on educational initiatives help develop key social/emotional and technical skills that are needed in impoverished communities
  • What “wrap-around social services” are, and why they make such a difference for Rocking the Boat participants
  • What brands can learn from Rocking the Boat’s ability to create a lasting impact on its students and the wider community

Episode 25: Adam Green Transcript

Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway. This is a podcast that brings you inside the world of marketing through the lens of influence. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week through candid conversations with industry insiders, we will uncover how influencer marketing is making an impact across all consumer buying habits and is changing the way we talk to each other. Let’s dive in.

Danielle Wiley: Adam Green is the founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat. Adam started the volunteer project that would become Rocking the Boat in 1995 during a semester off from Vassar College, influenced by his experience teaching kids about the Hudson River aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. He developed a program that used the process of building and using wooden boats as a way to educate and empower young people from underserved communities.

Danielle Wiley: He has received numerous awards and accolades for Rocking the Boat, including an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Union Square Award for grassroots organizing, a Manhattan Institute’s social entrepreneurship award. And in 2014 was named one of 25 International CNN Heroes.

Danielle Wiley: Adam Green is one of my oldest friends. We were super close at Vassar in the early nineties and have lots of shared memories of our time there. Shortly after graduating from Vassar, Adam founded an absolutely amazing nonprofit and he joined me on the podcast to talk all about the influence he has had on the kids they work with and on the boat building nonprofit world in general. Enjoy.

Danielle Wiley: Hi. It’s so good to see your face, and I don’t know why we don’t do this for personal catch up purposes, and I had to invite you to my podcast to see your face and talk to you.

Adam Green: Yeah, now it’s so easy to actually see each other and have a conversation through whatever platform, but no. Yeah, it’s only when there’s a natural reasons for it.

Danielle Wiley: Well, I have known you for a very long time. We lived in the same dorm at Vassar, so we met in ’91.

Adam Green: Fall. Fall of ’91. Yeah.

Danielle Wiley: Would, yeah, so over 30 years ago, which is insane. You have done absolutely amazing things. So I of course know kind of like your whole background journey and how you got to where you are, but for our listeners who are not lucky enough to have been with you through some of that, you grew up in New York City, ended up at Vassar, which is where we met, and now you are the founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat, which you’re going to talk all about. Why don’t you kind of share a little bit of that journey because it’s just interesting.

Adam Green: Sure. Yeah. Well, and it’s neat to be sharing it with you because you were kind of there when it all happened. So yeah, I grew up in Manhattan. Sometimes when I’m being a smart ass, if I’m allowed to say that, I say, I grew up on a small island on the eastern seaboard of the United States. And people go, oh, really? That sounds so quaint. And I say, yes, it’s Manhattan. And I say that not just to be a smart ass, but because that is so much of the orientation that I want to bring the young people we work with into which is that we’re on either an island or we’re here on the mainland in the Bronx, but we’re surrounded by water and we wouldn’t be here, none of us would be here if we weren’t and if it weren’t for water. And water is such a powerful force in every sense, both very practically, but also metaphorically.

Adam Green: And we use water in lots and lots of different ways. And I grew up being conscious of the fact that I was living on an island and I could, if I stuck my head out of my 11th story apartment building just far enough to not be very safe, I could catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. And we used to go sailing on a sailboat called the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater that Pete Seeger founded in the late ’60s. And my parents were Pete Seeger fanatics, and therefore we got involved. And so I had a little bit of a taste of being on the water, but I don’t come from a boating or sailing background at all. I think most of the people I talk to these days assume I grew up sailing, and this is, there’s a lot of people, especially our donor base do. But for me, this is nothing that I did other than this. Every couple years we’d go sailing on Clearwater and my parents were big into camping and hiking and that sort of thing.

Adam Green: So we did a lot of outdoor, outdoor stuff. But I was a city kid and most of my outdoor time was spent in Central Park. And I think in a way, the work that I started doing when I founded Rocking the Boat was as much for me as it was for the young people I was working with. And both in exploring, doing unique and different things that you wouldn’t expect to be doing in the middle of the city, but also because of the impact that those things have in the sense of feeling special, feeling unique, feeling like you’ve got something going on in your life that no one else does. And I think even for someone as privileged as I was and am as a white person growing up in upper middle class Manhattan lifestyle, I needed that sense of value and validation that I wasn’t really getting even from as exclusive and elite place as Vassar College.

Danielle Wiley: So you left, so we were at Vassar and then you took a semester off, and that’s kind of how this all, I mean, I guess it started and as the seeds of it were planted in your childhood.

Adam Green: Right, yeah, I took a semester off really because that I wasn’t getting anywhere in school and I needed to do something that gave me sense of purpose and connection. And then ended up really by chance stumbling into this volunteer opportunity at a junior high school in East Harlem. The teacher there said he’d had a dream to build a boat and wondered, he was a science teacher and had to teach science, but his classroom was a sort of decommissioned shop class. So he had all these benches and tools that they weren’t using. And he is like, I can take my kids somewhere else if you want to build this boat. And he gave me a set of plans from a hobby magazine and some scrap wood that he’d collected from a construction site near his house in Long Island and said, what do you think? I was like, I’d never done anything like that before, but I was sort of handy. And the idea of building a boat, that sounded pretty cool.

Adam Green: So we did, and we built this little eight foot dinghy over the course of about eight months in that time, I returned to Vassar, and there was a moment, you were probably one of the people I had this conversation with where people go, oh, you took a semester off do. And I was like, you did this and this. And now I’m building a boat with a bunch of junior high school kids in East Harlem. And it was something about telling people what I was doing and seeing their reactions that made me go, oh wow, this is special.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, I mean, because the rest of us were getting drunk, getting high, going to class, sitting around. We weren’t doing anything very significant. No offense to my college career, but-

Adam Green: And the first two thirds of mine as well. And I remember taking a ethnography class or something in the American culture program that I was in, and part of our curriculum was walking through Poughkeepsie and having authentic conversations with people to learn about people in Poughkeepsie was just so unbelievably, I mean, racist-

Danielle Wiley: Like, just stopping people on the street?

Adam Green: No like going into a store and just chatting and having you, it is just this very, we as a society have evolved a good deal since then. But I don’t know, I wasn’t insulted personally, but just sort of outraged. At this point I was going back to East Harlem once a week to accomplish two things. One was to go to therapy and the other was to, well, my other form of therapy, which was teaching kids how to build this boat. And so I’d spent a night at my parents’ house and then do the boat building class and take the train back up to Poughkeepsie. But in doing that, I was walking into bodega and buying Snapple iced teas probably, and having conversations with people, not deep conversations, more like, here’s some money and thanks for the change. Those are authentic because they actually have a real reason for being, and it was valuable.

Adam Green: And I felt this, and I brought that up in the class like that, if you want to actually learn about community and be in contact with people and receive information from them, you can’t just go and ask them. You have to actually have a genuine, authentic purpose for having that conversation. And I think, so part of going way off track here, but part of this for me was learning about people in a way that was not canned and not that was based on something that was real and the relationships that I cultivated with these kids in this school. And for that matter, for the teachers and just this whole, I mean, it’s so much of being at a school like Vassar is just this cloistered kind of little fantasy world. And being able to spend time with real human beings with challenging lives and responsibilities that extended beyond a paper being due was hugely valuable.

Adam Green: Anyway, we launched the boat at the end of the school year in the swimming pool in the basement of the school. And it was just this amazingly inspiring moment, and none of us really knew what we were doing, but really splashing around in the pool and seeing these kids who had built this boat actually use it. And the idea that you could create something that you could actually use and then well weren’t going very far, but used to go somewhere was really powerful. And I remember standing there in the swimming pool and room, whatever that is called, and going thinking metaphorically, we could be going a lot farther than just the other side of the pool. And that’s really where it started and growing from building a very, very simple little boat. And around in the pool to now it’s our 25th year, we serve about 4,000 people a year.

Adam Green: There’s a core of about 200 kids who are involved in a very, very intensive long-term engagement starting in middle school into high school, and then beyond, we offer a whole series of alumni support services, and we do it all through these three technical mediums of wooden boat building. Why do we build wooden or any boats? We use them to do a whole range of environmental research and restoration and advocacy on our local river, the Bronx River. And then we also use them to learn and to teach sailing. And so we have a whole sailing education program that is run by participants teaching others how to sail.

Danielle Wiley: So you guys are based in the Bronx, and so the kids are just from the Bronx area, or do they come from all of New York City?

Adam Green: We are not exclusive in any way, but we’re located in Hunt’s Point, which is a somewhat remote neighborhood of the Bronx and a unfortunately very stigmatized neighborhood because of, its pretty unfortunate history in a lot of ways. So I think the flip side of that is most of our kids are local, because other people wouldn’t want to send their kids here, which is really sad and especially because it’s so beautiful. It’s a heavily industrialized and very, very poor neighborhood, but it’s surrounded by the Bronx and East Rivers. And I can walk down to the river right here and see Osprey and Herons and Egrets sailing across the river, and it’s amazing. So most of the kids are either from the immediate or adjacent neighborhoods, or were from the Bronx. We have a handful of kids who come from other places.

Danielle Wiley: And it’s primarily after school that they come?

Adam Green: So yeah, we run a broad or maybe three broad areas of programming, the core programming, the program that we started building back when is our after school and summer youth development program. So those, that’s the long term engagement. And we have a team of three social workers and a college and career advisor who support participants throughout four years of high school and beyond. And that’s, so yeah, that’s basically March to December after school and in the spring and the fall and four days a week over the summer. But then we also run broader reaching public programs. So we run programs for school groups. We’ll have schools coming for multiple sessions. We have one school that comes twice a week, basically all school year at long. We do camp programs during breaks. So we have a local middle school that’s going to be coming down over February break and building a kayak at Rocking the Boat.

Adam Green: And then they’ll be continuing on because they’re not going to do the whole thing in four days doing after school programs twice a week. But as a school group as opposed to our high school programs, which are individual kids sign up and it’s not sort of through the school. Those public programs serve about 1500 people a year. And then we run community rowing and sailing and bird watching programs on Saturdays and Sundays over the summer. And I think this past summer we took like 1500 people out on the water, and I’m expecting that number to increase this year. So overall, well now that maybe we’re back to scale after a couple of pretty darn funky years, to put it lightly, about 4,000, we touched about 4,000 people a year, but there’s this core of about 150, 200 who get very, very long term engagement, support and then in many cases act as the staff to lead the rest of the program. Our not very deep strategy to teaching people how to work is to employ them, rather than just to talk to them about how to do well when they get employed. So along with the technical skills that we’re developing, obviously in all these three tracks, a huge focus is on training young people to be successful in the workplace, and this is their first opportunity to do that.

Danielle Wiley: So you’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and I want to talk about your influence outside of just Rocking the Boat, but starting with Rocking the Boat. I mean, you have some pretty impressive stats on where these kids end up going. I mean, it’s more than just teaching them how to sail or how to build a boat. You’re really acting as a support system in a lot of other ways as well.

Adam Green: Yeah. And we’re very clear that we’re not a workforce development program that is intending to place people in maritime or other related fields, but certainly we have kids who have gone, we have actually have so many coming in right after we get off, oh, she’s probably about 21 now, and she has been working as a crew member on New York City Ferry, which is the municipal ferry, has just passed her captain’s licensure. And she’s here so that I can sign off on her sea time that she did at Rocking the Boat.

Adam Green: She will be the very first ever Latina captain among the New York City ferry fleet.

Danielle Wiley: That’s awesome.

Adam Green: So that’s pretty exciting. And we have a board member of ours who’s a graduate, who’s a union carpenter. That trade was one that she learned about through Rocking the Boat, and we helped to facilitate a lot of the pre-app apprenticeships and so forth that got her there.

Adam Green: But then we have people doing a zillion things. We actually, our annual appeal focused on two grads. One, Stephanie, who is a public defender for the Brooklyn Defenders, has had an amazingly challenging life and an amazingly successful one. Who credits her time here in high school is a big part of that. Another guy, Terrell, who’s an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and that’s awesome. Whether someone who’s becoming a captain or an investment banker or a lawyer, those are all success stories. And I always feel like we have a lot of kids who are going into either education or social work, case work tracks. And I think so much of that is a big secondary part of our social work mission is to destigmatize social work. So for so many kids, the social worker is where you go when you’re in trouble or it’s that kind of door at the end of the hall that you don’t want to be sent to. And for us, a social worker is everybody is working with one of our social workers in individually and in groups, and it’s just a person to help you out in whatever way you need. And so we have a lot of kids who want to become social workers and a couple of whom have actually gone into social work school, which is-

Danielle Wiley: That’s awesome, because I don’t think enough, I mean, you read a lot about how the social work industry and teaching are really hurting for great people to come in. So I mean, those are two occupations that need a little.

Adam Green: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. And we do a very unique social work here in that it’s not clinic-based or school based, it’s much more integrated into activities. But I think it’s a wonderful approach.

Adam Green: And the other kind of field that people often come to me to talk about being inspired go into is nonprofit entrepreneurship, which I’m not necessarily encouraging them to pursue, but I can, off the top of my head, think of four or five people in the last year who said, I want to create a nonprofit like you have. And I’m like, hold on a minute, but, and kind of dial them back to like, okay, well what do you want to be doing? And maybe are there ways to do that work that doesn’t involve actually starting anything? Which is in fact how I started, I didn’t create a nonprofit. I started doing the work and realized it made sense eventually to create a nonprofit. Young adults have this vision of, oh, I know this guy who had an idea and did something, and that something actually impacted my life in a really significant way, is wonderful. And I’m so honored to be that model. So much of the reason why I was able to do this had to do with my privilege. But I think that that is unfortunately not the reality of the young people and the adults who are coming out of Rocking the Boat programs and is, that’s just an important and kind of bitter thing to have to emphasize.

Danielle Wiley: Well, and I was going to ask you this later, but since it’s kind of come up, since you’ve been doing this for so long, what’s the difference? Do you see a significant difference now in running a nonprofit than back? I mean, certainly social media wasn’t a thing right back then, just in terms of all the development that you have to do and promotion. I mean, on top of all the work that you’re doing with these kids, you also, a significant portion of your job is raising money and being out there. And I mean, I see all the events that you do.

Adam Green: Yeah, and I think that it’s radically different. I think some of that difference has to do with, well, two things. The lifecycle of an organization, the life cycle of a human being. So I was single and was able to run program from, I would don’t know, show up at 10:00 and then run program from 4 to 7:30 and then stay until 10 and keep on working. And sometimes-

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, you aren’t old and tired.

Adam Green: Something. Well, yeah, and sometimes sleeping on the futon in the back, whatever. And now I have to be home at 6:00 for dinner with, I have a five-year-old and a 10-year-old. And this morning my wife, Anna’s a psychotherapist and she has 7:00 AM clients. So I got morning drop off duty, and so then I get back to work at like 9. Yeah. Mean, we started off, our first budget in 1998 was 53,500, and we just passed a 2023 budget of 3.4 million.

Adam Green: I’ve got 20 full-time staff members when we’re fully staffed. And honestly, managing people is more challenging than any other element of the work. As the organization has grown, my role has changed and my priorities have shifted and certainly a much greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and belonging and we’ve gone through a huge organizational process and continue to around that work. And I think we’re right in the middle of it. Obviously the external world, whether it’s societal focuses and priorities on DEI or technology, obviously like social media and I mean just the way that we communicate, and I remember they came up with this new thing called email when we were in college. It wasn’t there when we started and it was when we ended.

Adam Green: But so it’s, and how to use all of these tools most effectively to communicate.

Danielle Wiley: Well, and it’s a ton of, I mean, even for the for-profit brands that we primarily do work for mean the amount of content required for social media is overwhelming. I mean, that’s a full-time job sometimes for multiple full-time employees to generate that amount of content. So while it gives you unparalleled access to the whole world and allows you to get your name out there and promote your fundraising initiatives, it’s also, it’s someone else you have to hire to be making a TikTok or doing whatever to get your name out there.

Adam Green: Right. Yeah. So we have a director of communications that is actually a graduate of the organization who does all of our social media, but as well as our videography and photography and all the content that goes into the posts. And social media, while the bullhorn is there, it doesn’t necessarily mean people are listening and figuring out how to do it in a way that is strategic and doesn’t become background noise in people’s feeds. A lot of our work is advertising and we have a product that we are promoting, and whether it’s to local kids and families for recruitment purposes or obviously externally to the or world for fundraising. Another big shift in Rocking the Boat’s kind of funding or in Rocking the Boat is our funding. We started out for many years being almost exclusively funded by private foundations, organization, nonprofits that are in the business of giving away money. And we still get a lot of money in from foundations, but now probably about 30 to 40% of our income is coming from individuals, 2000 individual donors a year, and doing it with a great deal of attention and love and follow up.

Adam Green: I had a conversation with a philanthropic advisor, someone who helps us get money from her clients, basically, and she said, how are you, are you still… Because I was talking all about all the wonderful, amazing, fantastic things happening Rocking the Boat. And she’s like, well, how are you doing feeling about everything? And amazingly, and maybe it’s just masochism, but it’s still so compelling to me, never, ever dull, always challenging, often frustrating. But then there are these amazing rewards that come from the work that I’m really fortunate to be a, I think there’s so many people doing so much amazing work in so many different ways, and it just happens so that I often, I get a lot of recognition for the work that I do, and I get a lot of opportunities like this to actually talk about that, which is fortunate, but also I think enriching for me in a way.

Danielle Wiley: Well, and one of the things you shared when we were planning for this podcast, which is so cool, and I’d love you to share a little bit, you were actually at a conference, was it in Washington State? So you’re have all this knowledge that really a lot of it, had to discover on your own by trial and error and doing the thing, and now you are taking that expertise and sharing it outside of the Bronx, outside of New York, to people across the country. So if you want to share a little bit about that?

Adam Green: Yeah, sure. So I think the other kind of influence that I have is as Rocking the Boat is the largest and most robust and complex youth development through wooden boat building education program in the country by a long shot at this conference. It’s called a Teaching With Small Boats Alliance and amazingly such a thing exists. I’m on the board of it. They actually, I think I had about 70 different organizations represented, and that was a mix of one or two person, little tiny operations, and then the Mystic Seaport Museum, massive organizations that have tiny little boat building education programs, but of the dedicated youth development organizations that are using these mediums, our budget is probably three times the next smallest.

Danielle Wiley: So you’re like the Paul McCartney there when you show up or people following you around and?

Adam Green: Yeah, and it’s a little intense. So at this conference, it was a three-day conference with hour and a half long workshop panels, and I was on seven of them, I think, or eight, facilitated three and was a panelist for the others. And people were just constantly asking me questions and I enjoy doing it. And so there’s that, it was a little exhausting. We are very much being looked at by the rest of the country and beyond. There are some international programs there as well as a model, and we actually have a number of organizations who very explicitly cite us as the model that they are trying to replicate in their own own program. In thinking about our next steps, I’m really compelled by that, is there a way that I can be, whether it’s helping either expanding Rocking the Boat by replicating in another place and/or helping other organizations to develop programs that are taking from the successes that we’ve had. And for that matter, from the many failures. What we do is not the greatest line between two points. I think the impact of it is huge, although it’s often hard to measure, which is another, if we were doing, I don’t know, SAT prep or-

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, it’s obvious helping you with your college application or teaching you, tutoring you in math. Yeah.

Adam Green: But in fact, this annual appeal that we put out, the opener was like, it’s so challenging to define our success and our outcomes. And for that matter, even if you’re doing the softer youth development work, do it through basketball or something that people already love to do and throw in some competition because people just love to win. And in fact, we are very definitively not doing competition. We want to attract people who aren’t necessarily feeling competitive, who are probably the oddballs in whatever other environments they’re in, and want to come to a place where nobody knows anything when they walk in the door and everybody is learning and doing it together. And that’s wonderful, but again, always challenging.

Danielle Wiley: That’s awesome. Okay, so before we, were nearing the end of our time, but we always end our podcast with this one question totally unrelated to anything we talked about so far, but what TV commercial has stuck with you most from your childhood?

Adam Green: I saw that in the prep email, and so my parents didn’t allow me to watch television. And what television they did was all public. And so I did not see many ads at all. The one that immediately jumped to mind was the advertisers for Crazy Eddie, the electronics store. And I don’t know if they had them in Long Island too, but in New York City. And it was just this, it was Crazy Eddie being totally crazy on-

Danielle Wiley: Well, he was in the newspapers too, so that would make sense that you would, I remember the pictures of him hair with his hair and his hands were up and yeah.

Adam Green: Those stood out as whatever. I remember when I was in high school, I used to sneak television and my parents thought they had outsmarted me by disconnecting the cable, which I would then go behind the TV and connect and then watch TV for an hour and then hear the front door unlock and quickly disconnect it, run into my room.

Danielle Wiley: That’s what I always tell. So I always tell other parents who don’t let their kids on social media at all. They use it anyway. And then you have no control over what they’re doing and there’s no dialogue about it and no opportunity to teach them what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. And Lord knows what you were watching.

Adam Green: My dad taught me that, what is it, beer before liquor?

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Never sicker.

Adam Green: Liquor before beer before. Right. That was from my dad the first time I walked home after drinking and he was still awake and he was like, you’ve been drinking. But be better to manage it than do it that way.

Danielle Wiley: Now Crazy Eddie’s, a number of the Crazy Eddie has come up with a couple of the East Coast, New York, New Jersey people. With us it’s mostly when we’re watching sporting football’s very big in my house, so that’s where we see all the commercials.

Adam Green: Right. And we don’t have TV. We have a, we stream stuff, but we don’t watch TV. No sports happening in our house at all.

Danielle Wiley: Well, this was amazing and thank you so much for coming on and chatting with me. And you guys are on Facebook.

Adam Green: Yep.

Danielle Wiley: And you’re Rocking the Boat there, all one word.

Adam Green: Yep.

Danielle Wiley: And then Instagram, RtBBronx.

Adam Green: Exactly.

Danielle Wiley: And same on Twitter. RtBBronx.

Adam Green: Yep.

Danielle Wiley: So they can find you on those. Great.

Adam Green: Those are they. It’s so good to see you and great to talk.

Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.