Kahi Pacarro’s life is juxtaposed between being a successful real estate developer and a composting, hen-raising, grassroots hustler working to save one beach at a time as the Executive Director for Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.
Perched on a hillside in Kaimuki, offering views from Mauka to Makai, the Pacarro hale is a testament to tireless passion and the visual representation of a steadfast vision.
Ascending the 30 stairs to the Pacarro’s home will leave you breathless, and the welcomed hillside breeze is second to the sights at the top: a honed, sustainable household. Fruits and vegetables dance along rock wall terraces; a pile of plastic floaters and fish trackers from commercial vessels recovered during cleanups; an aquaponic circulation system; Bokashi compost aging the richest soil; photovoltaic panels harnessing energy; and the Ladies – five hens, when mature, will lay one egg per day.
Upon entering the home, you are immediately drawn to a large map hanging on the wall.
Strings zigzag back and forth, up and down, wrapping around small brown nails forming what is clearly the travel path of a two year journey that altered Pacarro’s life. It is a constant reminder of an experience that awakened him to the state of the world’s pollution crisis, and in 2010, along with a group of eight friends, challenged him to step out of a career in real estate development into a new life of servitude.
Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s roots are in large-scale beach cleanups, campaigning against single-use products, and educating communities toward better consumer behavior.
“Trying to clean up the ocean is like trying to bail out a bathtub with the tap still running,” Paccarro explains.
Stopping the tap, he insists, should be the focus of eradicating trash and plastics.
Q&A with Executive Director Kahi Pacarro
Video by Aria Studios
What is the mission of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii?
To inspire local communities to care for their coastlines.
What was the inspiration behind creating your organization?
Inspiration stemmed from traveling around the world and seeing the degradation of the places that I thought were the most ideal-like paradises. When I came back home to Hawaii, I kind of put that in the back of my head, but one day, I was at Kailua Beach. I was staring out at the horizon, kind of reflecting on the trip, and I looked down only to notice that this same degradation and invasion of plastic pollution was front and center at my home beach.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest hurdle was in the three years of not getting funding – putting out as many grants as we could, only to be continually denied. You can understand why funders don’t want to give money to an unproven organization that doesn’t have a track record, so we understood that, but it was tough surviving in Hawaii.
What are your main sources for generating revenue now?
The main sources of generating revenue is through collaborations with corporations and foundations. Secondary would be through individual contributions, and lastly, through government grants.
Would you care to share the percentages per each category of the total money you get?
We probably get about 60% from our corporate collaboration – sponsorships, company grants, company donations, etc., and about 10% from individual contributions. I would say then 20% from government style grants – that’s state, city, or federal. Last, we do our own programs and services that generate revenue.
What do you use to track to make sure you’re accomplishing your overall mission?
The metrics are the amount of people that participate in our beach cleanups, the amount of students we’re able to educate every year, and the pounds of debris that we’re able to collect and recycle. Then it would be the government and legislative pushes towards bills that reduce plastic pollution and issues surrounding the ocean.
What would you say is the most influential factor in your organization’s success?
That would have been the $300,000 donation by Matson in 2015. That was just kind of like a gift from God. It was like “You guys are kicking ass. We see you guys out there doing work, and you’re doing it on a shoestring budget. Here’s 300 grand. See what you can do now.”
What do you know today that you wish you had known when you first started?
I would say the time investment. A nonprofit, more or less, takes up your entire life. When you end up becoming a global organization like we have, we are interacting with people around the world. Phone calls at 11 at night aren’t out of the norm, so it’s just the realizing what you’re getting into from a time standpoint. I’m totally fine with it. I get it and I love it, but I didn’t realize how much time it was going to take. You gotta make sure that you’re willing to put this much time into it.
What’s one piece of advice for somebody wanting to start a nonprofit?
I think the first one is that it’s not as hard as people think to create a 501c3. There are templates and now YouTube videos that can guide you to start up a 501c3. The main thing is to create a mission that is broad enough to allow you to hone in later. Think of an issue in a broader sense, and then hone in later, because your 501c3 documents are editable once you actually become a 501c3.
Another word of advice is realizing that you’re most likely not going to get paid for three years. Have enough savings or have another job in the meantime in order to justify not taking an income for the first two to three years.
Another one that’s super important, which took us a while to embrace fully, was collaboration. There are so many non-profits out there and a lot of the times we’re fighting for the same pot of money. Your willingness to be open to collaborate will help you be a part of the community versus being an outcast.
Text & Interview by Chelsey K. Flanagan