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Earth Day and Environmental Fundraising

April 24, 2017

With Earth Day on Saturday, April 22, AFP is looking at the state of environment fundraising and advocacy.  Part I here looks at American organizations, and Part II will look at environmental organizations around the world.

AFP was pleased to talk with Amelia V. Hellman, vice president of philanthropy at The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C.; Mary Kaufman-Cranney, CFRE, director of philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy-Washington State Field Office, in Seattle, Wash.; and Andrew Reed, director of donor engagement and stewardship at The Nature Conservancy’s World Office. They gave us their perspectives on how fundraising has looked over the past six months, how they’re connecting with and energizing donors and the importance of Earth Day.

AFP: Ever since the Presidential election in November, we’ve heard a lot about certain subsectors and charities seeing significantly increased contributions and their donors being more active. Environment causes have been included as part of that group. Have you’ve experienced that kind of increase at your organization?

Amelia Hellman, The Wilderness Society: We have. Our supporters are passionate and concerned about the current threats and are letting us know across all channels. For our current fiscal year, which ends September 30, The Wilderness Society’s budget is roughly $30 million. We’re estimating that we’ll raise an additional $2-3 million more than anticipated, so about a ten percent increase. We readjusted our budget to reflect that reality, with our primary focus being the establishment of a Rapid Defense Fund to respond to the increasing environmental challenges and the energy of our donors.

Andrew Reed, The Nature Conservancy: The Nature Conservancy hasn’t seen an overall increase for the organization. One reason why is that our fundraising is driven primarily by planned giving and major gifts. So, while we’ve seen a lot more interest and activity among our members and donors, it hasn’t translated—yet—into increased giving. On the other hand, we always get a spike in contributions after a Presidential election, but in 2016 that spike was $2-3 million bigger than in typical election years. While that is an increase that makes a difference, it is a relatively small percentage increase compared to our overall fundraising.

AFP: You said this increasing attention hasn’t translated yet into significant giving. Do you think it’s coming? Are people waiting to see what happens?

Mary Kaufman-Cranney, The Nature Conservancy-Washington State Field Office: There’s a ton of passion for the issues right now. We’re seeing that across our spectrum of donors, but especially major donors. At the same time, there’s a LOT of uncertainty. We’re asking people to make multi-year commitments, and many of them are feeling very cautious about committing long-term at this point.

AFP: Is that because they’re not certain about the issues and what will be needed, or is it something larger than just the environment?

Andrew: I think it’s bigger than just our cause. People are uncertain about the economy, the direction of the country—even if there’s going to be much of an incentive to give if tax reform affects charitable giving incentives. That’s what worries me the most: all this uncertainty will lead to less giving at high levels at a time when the role of philanthropy is more important than ever—especially in addressing issues related to the environment and the well-being of people

AFP: What’s the Wilderness Society seeing with its major donors? Something similar?

Amelia: It’s interesting. We conducted an audit of our fundraising department four years ago and, as a result, have been focusing more strategically on major and planned gifts.  Of course, we’re always looking for new donors, and we’re working hard to get existing donors to introduce us to new donors, but it’s our existing donors—and especially our major donors and members—that are highly engaged right now. I don’t think we’ve EVER seen our donor base more energized. Our quarterly calls with our President’s Circle—our major donor club—have been so well attended this year. In addition, we’ve got donors who have consistently given, but haven’t talked to us in a while, contacting us and wanting to know what’s going on and how they can help.

But it’s not just giving. Donors are wanting to engage in all sorts of ways, especially with regards to policy and other ways they can volunteer and be advocates for our cause. We’re reaching out to major donors and our governing council to see which elected leaders they know, and I’ve been a little surprised at how much our supporters want to help with this.

Mary: We’re seeing increased interest in engagement as well—there’s so much passion right now for our work on climate change, for instance. For me, the key is mobilization. People are mobilizing now on these issues, and they’re looking to us for leadership.

AFP:  You say mobilization, and the term social impact keeps coming to my mind now. They’re looking to you for a lot more than just fundraising and giving at this point.

Mary: They are, and I think part of that is the shift in mission of The Nature Conservancy. We’ve evolved from being a purely land trust organization to being focused on the connection of nature and people and the livability of our growing population. I think people are responding to that.

Andrew: Absolutely. In the current political climate, the discussion too often focuses on choosing one priority over another. We have the scientific and economic evidence that shows it can be about business AND people AND nature. All three can thrive. That’s a message that resonates and helps get away from the idea that we must make a choice between business, people, and nature.

Amelia: Social impact and leadership are why The Wilderness Society has developed what we’re calling our “Rapid Defense Fund,” raising additional funds for three major areas we’re going to be emphasizing over the next four years. One area is for litigation, addressing regulatory and legislative changes. The second area is organizing for the defense of parks and public lands, investing in on-the-ground grassroots resources and capabilities. Third, we’re developing a whole series of communications, including online activism, polling and focus groups, storytelling content and creation, and more. In this way, we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket, and we’re giving supporters different options to engage with and give.

AFP: Speaking of communications, how are people wanting to connect with you? Anything new, or just more of what you’ve been doing previously?

Andrew: There are some things The Nature Conservancy is doing differently. We are communicating more aggressively about climate, our policy efforts, and emphasizing our work with individual states, underscoring how nature is a great infrastructure investment. Those sorts of messages have definitely been ramped up. 

Mary: We’re also trying to be more visible in demonstrating how we’re not just leaders, but partners with other organizations. As we’re located in Washington, a tech center, we’re looking at ways to collaborate with those types of organizations, tell stories and show impact. We’re also very much involved in the March for Science.

Amelia: The Wilderness Society is putting out more communications for supporters, whether it’s phone calls, video meetings, Facebook and social media activism etc. We’re making sure we cover all the communications bases. We’re also going to invest significantly in membership. With so much more interest from the average person now about environmental issues, I think our membership drive could prove very important and expand our outreach.

AFP: Mary, you mentioned the March for Science, which brings us to Earth Day. How are your organizations involved in Earth Day this year? Is there more focus on it this year, given everything that is happening?

Mary: We’re very excited about the March for Science because it highlights we are a science-driven organization. We have more than 600 scientists on staff around the globe. Our strategies are driven by hard science—hand-in-hand with our passion. But there’s definitely a more urgent sense to Earth Day this year.

Andrew: I agree. The Nature Conservancy has always been very active, but this year the biggest thing is that we’re an official sponsor of the March for Science. We also have a social media campaign, #NatureUnitesUs, which we felt was a good response to all the divisiveness occurring now. But overall, I feel a lot more energy, a lot more focus.

Amelia: Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day, served on The Wilderness Society’s board and was our legal counselor for 24 years, so we’re very involved. He reflected later in life that what most surprised him about the original Earth Day was how it “organized itself.”  He proposed the idea of college campus teach-ins for the environment as part of a speech he gave in the fall of 1969 in Seattle. And on April 22, 1970, more than 20 million people turned out for it, marking the first Earth Day, and subsequently spawning the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of the bedrock environmental laws we have today.

We focus on the community-building aspect of the event and encourage people to attend different activities. We’re also inviting supporters to participate in the Climate March, which is the week after Earth Day. I think this year Earth Day has served as a big wake-up call for a lot of people about what’s at stake in the coming years regarding clean air, clean water, parks and wildlife.

AFP: That sense that the “stakes have been raised” seems to be a strong message coming from you and your donors.

Andrew: We’re hearing it loud and clear from our donors: The Nature Conservancy needs to be a strong voice in this field because conservation is NOT optional. So, we feel a lot of pressure to be visible leaders.

Mary: I completely agree. This feels like “the time.” It’s exciting and I’m feel very proud to be part of it.

Amelia: I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years of working with environmental organizations. It’s the challenge of my lifetime. Stressful, but critical for our communities and our planet.