For as long as most of us at Paddling Life can remember, Mark Singleton has been the life force behind conservation and river access nonprofit American Whitewater as its Executive Director. In a recent announcement, he mentioned that he will be retiring from his post in June, leaving the door open for someone else to take the reins. (And no, it won’t be a retirement a la Tom Brady)
Under his leadership, AW has constantly fought the good fight on behalf of paddlers and the rivers they recreate on throughout the country, adopting a regionally-based model for its stewardship efforts. Read on for his letter to AW’s membership, as well as a few thoughts from the board on the massive task of filling his shoes.
Letter from Mark Singleton
Back in 2004, several of the American Whitewater Board members I knew recruited me for the position of Executive Director and I accepted. If I had known what kind of financial shape AW was really in when the job was offered I would have thought twice about taking the position, but I did accept. And in doing so, I have experienced one of the greatest career opportunities of my life. In those early years at American Whitewater we struggled just to keep the lights on. The organization owed more money than it had in the bank and even though we had recently celebrated our 50th Anniversary, the American Whitewater job was like taking on a struggling 50 year-old start up.
To save on expenses we moved our centralized office out of DC and slowly, over time, repaid our debts and other pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. The first big structural change was to focus on a grassroots regional stewardship model, moving to regionally-based staff in the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and California. We experienced immediate success and growth with staff closer to the actual program work who were connected to local communities. We were the first organization among our peers to implement this regionally-based model which has since been adopted by many of the partner organizations we work with.
As stewardship efforts stabilized, we entered new regions of the country, starting with the southern Rockies, where water supply and allocation discussions were ramping up and paddlers needed a seat at the table. Flows in the region that support recreation (and habitat too) were looking like they might be on the chopping block soon and we wanted to be in a position to protect them. Ten years ago, recognizing the number of hydro relicensing projects that would happen in the northeast over the next two decades, we launched a focused regional stewardship program there as well. Our footprint now covers the entire country and not only do paddlers have a seat, often they’re at the head of the table as leaders and board chairs.
Today, there is a whole new generation of paddlers that have never known a time when rivers such as the Cheoah (NC), Feather (CA), Deerfield (MA), and Chelan (WA) were dry river beds without regular paddling opportunities. We were also able to establish policy capacity in DC by co-founding Outdoor Alliance with other organizations in the outdoor recreation space. Moving our centralized office out of the DC area was initially a matter of survival, the costs were more than the organization could manage, but now through coordinating with partner organizations we have an even higher level of access to decision makers.
American Whitewater has grown significantly over the last 18 years and we’ve accomplished that growth without raising membership dues. That’s right, no increase in standard membership dues for almost two decades! Best yet, no plans to increase membership dues are on the horizon. For each membership dollar American Whitewater receives we are able to leverage it for three additional dollars from other funding sources. Combine membership leverage with our lean administrative model and eleven straight years of four-star (highest) Charity Navigator ratings and it’s a win-win-win. It’s a win for members and donors from the paddling community, a good investment for foundation funders, and a broad reach for industry partners.
American Whitewater is in a remarkable position. By any measure the organization is stronger than it has ever been, with an awesome staff team in place. The bench strength of the AW team runs deep and staff know how to punch way above their weight. The right time for a leadership transition is when an organization is at the top of its game, and American Whitewater is clearly there. At the end of June, I plan to transition out of the executive director role. This will provide our Board with a long runway to find the next leader to head the organization. I will be working closely with the Board to make this a smooth and thoughtful transition. The job of executive director is both challenging and highly rewarding, for the right person it is a dream job.
It’s been a remarkable journey. We worked hard, laughed a lot, paddled iconic rivers, threw down in delight at Gauley Fest, hung our collective heads low after boneheaded river management decisions, and celebrated major victories over beers. Our community cheers the loudest when rivers are restored with flows, and it’s been rewarding to see deadbeat dams come down; those represent concrete results! Take care of rivers and your paddling will take care of you…
Letter from the Board of Directors
After 18 years of excellent leadership, Mark Singleton is stepping down from his position as Executive Director of American Whitewater. Although we are sad to see Mark go, we support his decision to take the time to catch an eddy after such a long and fruitful run. We look forward to opportunities this transition will bring and we are grateful for the assistance Mark will provide in onboarding a new Director. We are excited to see what Mark and his family will do with their newfound free time.
Under Mark’s leadership, American Whitewater has experienced substantial and sustainable growth, with lasting benefits for our whitewater community. Robust Stewardship Programs exist across the country, the Safety Program and Whitewater Inventory Database are providing invaluable resources, and membership is at an all-time high. Despite the challenges of a global pandemic, American Whitewater is as strong as it has ever been. All of this makes the organization well-positioned to achieve a smooth transition.
We have the utmost confidence in the team that Mark amassed to continue their work in protecting, restoring, and facilitating enjoyment of our whitewater rivers. We will work diligently to find an Executive Director who captures the spirit of the organization, is committed to growing a diverse and inclusive membership, and can manage a strong team.
-American Whitewater Board of Directors