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Farewell From Shari Steele

DEEPLINKS BLOG
March 30, 2015

Farewell From Shari Steele

Today is the start of my last week as an employee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  I will be leaving after nearly 15 years as EFF's President and Executive Director, having started as a Staff Attorney back in 1992.  As I wrap up things here, I've been thinking a lot about where we've been and where we are now, and I thought it would be fun to share some of my reflections in a final blog post.

EFF was founded in July of 1990 in response to a series of raids on small bulletin board systems (BBSs) that were believed to have received a stolen electronic document.  John Perry Barlow does a fantastic job of explaining that early history, so I won't go into that here.  But EFF is turning 25 this summer, so keep your eyes open for lots of upcoming celebrations.

EFF was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was originally housed in a space in Central Square that Mitch Kapor used for his Kapor Enterprises, Inc.  In January of 1992, EFF opened a second office in Washington, D.C., and that's when I was hired.  Within a year, the Cambridge office of EFF was shut down and everything was consolidated in D.C.  EFF chugged along in DC until 1995, when the board moved the organization to San Francisco.  At first we were located in founder John Gilmore's basement in Haight Ashbury until the organization got on its feet and moved into the old Hamms Brewery building on Bryant Street.

I took over as EFF's ED in July of 2000.  EFF was ten years old, and in those first ten years, the organization had churned through seven executive directors.  At the time, our only real sources of funding were a couple of very generous individuals.  We were working with a barebones staff of five people and our office space had cubicle walls so high, you couldn't even tell if other employees were there or not.  Within a few months, we moved to a new office on Shotwell Street, where we stayed until 2013, literally breaking through a wall at one point to increase our square footage.

One of my first moves back in 2000 was to beg Cindy Cohn to come on as EFF's Legal Director.  I had worked with Cindy on the Bernstein case, where she was the lead pro bono attorney fighting against the U.S. government's encryption policy.  Cindy and I managed to convince Lee Tien, a brilliant attorney who had worked on the Bernstein case with us, to join us, as well.  And with those two hires, EFF was on its way!

Along with hiring Cindy and Lee, I needed to immediately hire a development director.  This turned out to be a more difficult task than the EFF board or I had ever imagined, and my failures at doing this successfully became a running joke for the next few years.  It turns out fundraising at EFF is actually more like activism than traditional fundraising, because our donors really want to talk about the current events that shape our work.  Fortunately, I turned out to be pretty good at fundraising myself (who knew?) until former EFF Activist Richard Esguerra took the helm.

I believed that building up our legal team would, in turn, build our reputation, and that the donors would come to recognize and support the important work we were doing.  In a partnership that worked, Cindy bolstered the legal team while I focused on the rest, making sure the organization had the resources and staff to support our work.

Once the legal work was humming along, I knew it was time to build up our activism team.  EFF had always had a focus on activism—we hired the first online person with the title "Activist" in Stanton McCandlish—but at this point, EFF's activism was mostly designed to support our legal work.  We'd file a case, and then we'd do an activism campaign around educating our constituents about it.  I believed activism itself was a powerful tool that could be used as an alternative to casework.  So I went on a quest to find a person who shared my vision of activism and found Rainey Reitman.  Activism work is emotional and immediate, and EFF's activists soon developed a voice independent and complementary to our legal team, which was used to doing things carefully and methodically.  I believed—and I continue to believe—that EFF needs to attack threats to civil liberties from several fronts, and EFF's activists, along with EFF's lawyers, are some of the most brilliant strategists working in our space.

As EFF grew it became apparent that another set of experts within the organization had a bigger role to play.  EFF's focus on technology demanded that our lawyers have an expertise in technology.  While all of our lawyers were tech-savvy, we needed specialists who could look at code and tell us what it did and explain specifically how new technologies worked.  We created the position of staff technologist to support our legal work and help us make proper analogies to the courts.  But we soon realized that technology itself is another tool we could use in our fight for rights.  We built up our tech projects team and under the active imagination of director Peter Eckersley, we've created technologies that make browsers more secure and encrypt the Internet, among other things.

My key role in all of this has been providing a supportive environment to those employees doing our important work.  I have handled everything from working with our auditor on our yearly audit and taxes, to rolling out unique employee benefits, to instituting mechanisms to improve communications between teams as we've grown, to speaking with donors, and more.  I have "made up" benefits to enable staff members to work for the public interest in an expensive city like San Francisco.  EFF has a rental assistance program, a student loan reimbursement program, a discretionary paid leave program, and a 2nd mortgage program for employees purchasing homes.  Perhaps our most popular program is "Healthy EFF," where staff members are paid $10 per day for self-reporting personal health-focused behaviors.

Since I became ED in July of 2000, the organization has grown in every way to meet the growing challenges to our rights: from our original five employees to 63; from a yearly operating budget of $500,000 to a budget of nearly $9 million; from less than 2,000 members to over 25,000.  In addition, we've created and funded two endowments worth $13 million.  EFF is mentioned in the press dozens of times per day, including frequent interviews on NPR and in the top national newspapers.  We now own our office building on Eddy Street.

I don't know what's next for me.  I'm moving to the Seattle area with my family, and I'll be looking for my next great adventure there.  I leave EFF this week as a thriving, successful organization.  Cindy is taking over, and all of the superstars who have made this organization so great will continue their important work.  I couldn't be more proud.

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