Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation is an environmentalist group that has been around for more than three decades. What started as a group that advocated for easy access to beaches quickly became a nanny-state promoter seeking to ban any single-use plastic. 

In its articles of incorporation in 1984, the Surfrider Foundation said it was forming to “promote public awareness of and public access to” surfing areas on California’s coastline. The group also hoped to educate the public on the sport of surfing and to improve the design of surfing equipment. 

Fast forward three decades and the Surfrider Foundation has devolved from a cool coastal community of surfers into a nagging voice against plastic products ranging from balloons to tampon applicators. 

The Plastic Ban Brigade

The Surfrider Foundation has been one of the main groups organizing for sweeping bans of plastic products. The foundation is a part of the Break Free From Plastic coalition. In recent years, they’ve lobbied the federal government to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and the REDUCE Act, which would regulate and tax the plastic products used to keep families safe. 

On the local level, the Surfrider Foundation has taken credit for campaigns aimed at banning plastic straws, balloons, polystyrene foam, foodware, and bags. In some areas, the foundation has taken it a step further to encourage limitations on the use of fossil fuels altogether, as they did in Los Angeles. Since 2019, the foundation has organized more than 40 separate campaigns against plastic. 

The Surfrider Foundation also helps publish the Better Alternatives Now (B.A.N.) List. The B.A.N. list calls for individuals to stop using everything from diapers to condoms to help limit their plastic consumption.

The foundation’s anti-plastic advocacy has put them in contact with some sketchy figures. In 2015, the group co-signed a letter with Ghislaine Maxwell, who allegedly groomed young girls on behalf of convicted predator Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell ran her own ocean advocacy group called the TerraMar Project. 

Compliance Chaos

In 2017, the Surfrider Foundation was accused of failing to disclose lobbying expenses in its nonprofit filings, according to a report by the Orange County Register. In 2014, the group reported just $10,125 in total lobbying and $0 in grassroots lobbying. But somehow, the group was able to afford several trips to Washington D.C. on just $10,125. According to the report: 

Pursuant to Internal Revenue Service rules, Surfrider and other nonprofits must report allocable overhead and administrative costs — including staff salaries and benefits — attributable to lobbying activities. It is difficult to believe that BEACH Act lobbying — not to mention other activities that year — only cost several thousand dollars, given the substantial costs of lodging, meal and transportation costs in the District of Columbia. And don’t forget the front-end preparation costs, from setting up meetings to preparing and distributing written materials.

That same year, Surfrider enlisted the help of the lobbying firm Platinum Advisors to push Senate Bill 968 through the California State Legislature, which restored public access to Martin’s Beach in San Mateo County after billionaire Vinod Khsola — the owner of the property — lobbied to keep the beach private. Khosla hired a top-tier lobbyist, which led Surfrider to pursue extensive lobbying in Sacramento.

In addition to these expenses, the foundation also contributed $49,500 to the California Conservation Campaign to help fund two ballot initiatives in 2014 — both of which would be considered lobbying expenses, but neither of which was reported as such. 

Today, the foundation has a statement on its website denying that any spending was incorrectly reported and maintains that all lobbying efforts are carefully tracked in line with 501(c)(3) regulations. 

The Surfrider Foundation still has some friends in Washington. Jennie Romer, a former legal associate for the foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative, was hired as a deputy assistant administrator for pollution prevention at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Biden. 

A Wave of Money

The Surfrider Foundation’s major funders are the estate of late surfer Alec ‘Ace Cool’ Cooke and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In 2019, the foundation also received between $50,000 and $99,999 from the Ball Foundation. The Ball Foundation is a philanthropic project of the Ball Corporation, which manufactures aluminum and glass containers. Coincidently, the Surfrider Foundation is currently trying to get the U.S. National Parks to ban the sale of plastic bottles in favor of aluminum or glass alternatives. 

The Surfrider Foundation brought in more than $11 million in 2019. While the group paints itself as a grassroots operation, some of its high-dollar programming has landed them in hot water. In 2011, Charity Navigator removed a star from the foundation’s rating after it’s fundraising budget exceeded the evaluator’s recommended metrics in 2009. 

The foundation’s director Steve Blank apologized for the big-spending, telling the Orange County Register: “It kills me we went down a star. In 2009, it was our 25th anniversary event, and Surfrider threw a large celebration and fund-raiser… so our fund-raising allocation went up.” In other words, the foundation threw a massive party for their anniversary — which happened to take place during the peak of the Great Recession.