How the Waitt Foundation Thinks Small

Long before he was a big fish in personal computing, Ted Waitt was a minnow, running Gateway from the family farm in Iowa. While it supports giant marine conservation groups, his foundation still looks after the little guy. 

Since around 2005, the Waitt Foundation has made ocean protection its top priority, by funding the Waitt Institute to run its own marine programs, but also funding organizations mostly for work on MPAs and fisheries. As you might expect with a global conservation funder, the heavies like Oceana, Pew, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and EDF are all on the grantee list. 

But what really makes Waitt interesting is its efforts to make smaller grants, not as an exception, but as a rule. 

Related: Waitt Foundation: Grants for Marine & Rivers Conservation

For one thing, it keeps what it calls a Rapid Ocean Conservation Grants Program (ROC), funding projects at significantly lower levels than some of its larger program. Run by archaeologist Dominique Rissolo, the program accepts applications on a rolling basis for grants up to $10,000 and occasionally $20,000. It’s also a more streamlined system, reducing a layer from the application process and delivering funding within two weeks of the committee making a decision, and even sooner if it’s particularly urgent.

The focus still needs to be on protected areas and fisheries, but can go toward research, policy, management, or communications.  

Related: Ted Waitt Profile

Some recent grants from ROC program include a number of urgent research projects at universities, such as rapid assessments of ecosystems pending an MPA decision. But Waitt also funded the Black Fish Foundation for a campaign to stop driftnet fishing in the Mediterranean. And my favorite is a grant to culinary organization the James Beard Foundation for a “Chef’s Bootcamp for Policy and Change.” 

They're the kind of little, quick hit chunks of cash that would be hard to imagine coming from big conservation guys like MacArthur, for contrast. 

There’s another program along these same lines, although it’s actually administered by the National Geographic Society. Waitt became the largest living donor to NGS, in part when he set up the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program.  

Related: The Funders Behind NatGeo’s Huge Marine Preserve Plan

Similar to the ROC grants, these are meant to be small chunks of capital that can go to early career researchers without the long, exclusive process of peer review. Grants are considered “proof of concept” funding and tend to be between $5,000 and $15,000. 

Waitt makes about 100 grants a year, applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and perhaps the most attractive aspect is that funding decisions are made within 10 weeks of application submission. Just enough time to pack, weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen.