How Fundraising for Conservation is Different than Fundraising for Other Nonprofits

How Fundraising for Conservation is Different than Fundraising for Other Nonprofits


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Last week, I spent a perfectly wonderful two days at the Texas Land Trust Council’s Land Conservation Conference. Wonderful that is until I went outside the hotel expecting 80 degrees and sun and got 39 degrees and rain instead. I could have gotten miserable weather at home.

One of the conference attendees asked me at a coffee break how fundraising for conservation was different than fundraising for other nonprofits. He had some experience raising money charitably but not for conservation groups.

What a perceptive question! And I told him so.

I’ve thought of it often, mostly related to my own arms-length association with AFP, but that’s a different story.

The answer is that there are many obvious similarities. The majority of the money comes from a minority of the donors. Building personal relationships with donors – getting to know them and why they are motivated to support your organization – is the key to long term sustainability. Annual (or monthly) renewable giving is a great tool for cultivating major gifts. Direct mail is not an intuitive science. And so on.

But there are also (at least) three nuanced differences that can make a big difference if you understand them.

The first difference is that many nonprofits envision a future when their existence will no longer be necessary. Their mission is to create something, or eradicate something, or bring about change such that their services are no longer needed. Creating literacy standards, or access to health care. Erasing hunger, or homelessness, or cancer.

Land trusts envision a future where they remain an integrated part of the community, forever tending to the dynamics of a changing landscape or habitat and open space. In that sense, land trusts are closer to educational institutions than to medical research and social services organizations.

The second difference is that fundraising to keep land from being built or paved over is fundamentally different than fundraising to build something. It’s much easier for donors to look at a scale model and envision the role they could play in making that happen than to envision the role they could play in keeping it from happening.

In this sense, bricks and mortar projects are often perceived as positive – responses to need – happy things that will make life better for some or all. If we do this, good things will happen. Improvement. Progress.

In contrast, conservation projects are often perceived as negative – responses to threat. If we don’t do this, bad things will happen. Destruction. Loss.

The associated motivations to give are qualitatively different.

And the third difference is that most non-profits have a well-defined natural constituency. The people who graduated from this school. People who have been touched by this disease or mental illness. People who are interested in art, or music, or history. People who have children or animals, or who are tending an elderly loved one. In other words, NOT everyone.

Everyone has a stake in conservation outcomes, at least theoretically. Quality of life, drinkable water, breathable air. Access to open space and sacred spaces. It makes it hard to figure out where to start – how to prioritize the work. Outreach is challenging.

Given these differences, I would offer the following as (more or less) a recipe for success when fundraising for conservation work:

  1. Embrace perpetuity. Plan all your organizational systems – but especially including fundraising – with perpetuity in mind. Prioritize deep and lasting over shallow and efficient. Going slow to go fast. Prioritize engagement. This implies knowing your renewal and retention rates and constantly working to improve them. This implies investing in your planned giving programs. This implies prioritizing the personal over the efficient in member/donor communications, and especially when it relates to Board engagement.
  2. Use the Land. It is difficult to raise money effectively when it comes to conservation and the environment by engaging the eyes alone. There is no real substitute for donors being on the land (or water). Being OF the land. Engaging with ears, noses, feet, and hands in addition to eyes. Video can and does work to some extent, and Virtual Reality holds at least some future promise, but not like actually being there. BTW – this is the hidden advantage that fundraising for conservation has over nearly all other fundraising. We just need to use it more effectively.
  3. Put aside the idea that outreach needs to equally cover the entire service territory. If your organizational service territory is a single township, or even some single counties, it might be possible to generalize your outreach work. But most land trusts will need to be more focused and specific. For example, draw a line on a map one mile from one of your preserves and focus communications inside that line, even if it results in ignoring other parts of your geography. Or focus your outreach on a particular town within a county or neighborhood within a city. Stay the course for several years and then move the focus somewhere else.
    I recently completed an experiment where we mailed an inexpensive piece to every household within a certain small geography. We mailed essentially the same piece three times within the span of two years. The targeted direct mail that we sent last November drew twice the response inside that geography than outside it.
  4. Finally, to state the obvious, we should also concentrate on effective fundraising activities, regardless of whether they are different. Like, finding ways to effectively engage Board members with donors and vice versa. Building relationships into the donor community is an important role for Board members. They are called upon to represent their various communities on the Board to be sure, but they should also be called upon to represent the land trust back out into their communities. How they are prepared and equipped for this task matters.


OK – your turn. How are we different in the land trust community? And how should we adapt our work to accommodate those differences?


Cheers, and Have a Great Week!




Photo by Birch Landing Home courtesy of


PS: The Dilbert strip was great this Sunday. If you didn’t catch it, here’s the link: Dilbert 21090303.



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