Fundraising for Stewardship Endowment

Fundraising for Stewardship Endowment


18 January 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’m getting a number of requests for help fundraising from land trusts who need to build their stewardship endowments. Some of this is undoubtedly related to land trust accreditation, which has brought both new awareness and new urgency to the issue of endowment.

I posted several weeks ago about using capital campaigns to raise money for stewardship endowment. It seems logical – we need a large amount of money; let’s do a capital campaign! But, as I pointed out then, capital campaigns may not be the best tool for the job. (See A Capital Campaign Primer – Part 1, and A Capital Campaign Primer – Part 2.) The case for support is largely intellectual, and emotions drive giving decisions more so than logic.

But there’s another problem, too. One that is a bit more subtle. A close intellectual examination of the case for giving presents the organization as irresponsible, which in turn erodes trust not only for your land trust but for land trusts in general.

Let me explain.

Consider this sequence of statements:

  • We accepted responsibility for caring for this piece of land some years ago in the public interest.
  • We understood at the time that this responsibility was perpetual. It lasts beyond our lifetimes. It lasts forever.
  • However, we did not have enough money at the time to guarantee our stewardship responsibility. And we haven’t done a whole lot since then to make up for it (or perhaps what we have done hasn’t worked).
  • In fact, we’ve been adding to the problem since then by acquiring additional land and stewardship responsibilities.
  • The best practice solution is to create a stewardship endowment. The Nature Conservancy realized this back in the mid-1980s after thirty-plus years of acquiring everything it could all over the country. The Land Trust Alliance has included building a stewardship endowment as one of their land trust standards since at least 2004.
  • But for whatever reason, we weren’t smart enough or wise enough to think it all the way through it at the time, and we haven’t been any smarter or wiser since then. (Or perhaps we just didn’t take that part of our responsibility seriously enough.)
  • Regardless, now we’re under the gun with accreditation.
  • So we need you to help bail us out.
  • Please give to our campaign.



Some people understand conservation well-enough to buy into this, but not everyone will, and putting it out there – however softly – in appeal letters, newsletters, and social media has the potential to erode some of the public trust that drives current levels of fundraising support.

It’s like bragging about how low your overhead is. It feeds a narrative that we don’t need fed. Worse, it focuses donor attention generally in a way that may adversely affect other land trusts as well.

Donors are NOT motivated to give because you have to build an endowment to get accredited any more than because of how little you spend on fundraising. They are motivated to give because of how trustworthy and responsible you are and how MUCH you accomplish. Focus on THAT, and you’ll likely raise more money.

See also: How Much is Your Obsession with Overhead Costing You?


In my capital campaign posts, I proposed alternative ways to raise stewardship endowment using unrestricted planned gifts and new projects. Both strategies depend on donors giving primarily for other reasons (to the mission, and to support stewardship of other projects) and do not require mea culpa case arguments.


But we need to go even further for future land acquisition work. We need to fundamentally change our language. To illustrate, I’ll use a metaphor I got from Vu Le.


When you walk into a bakery to order a cake, you do not consider or even question the individual costs of the ingredients – flour, butter, baking soda, sugar, and so on. Much less the overhead – electricity, rent, oven maintenance, and so on. And you don’t compare bakeries based on what they actually paid for sugar either. (You compare them based on the quality of their cakes!)

So you order a cake – it was either worth the price or not. Presumably you trust the baker or you wouldn’t have walked into the bakery in the first place!

Importantly, in this metaphor, if the bakery underestimates the cost of sugar, and can’t actually make the cake you ordered for the price you paid, they can’t (or at least shouldn’t) come back to you for more money. The bakery is going to have to find another way – a bank loan perhaps, or a price increase on everyone else’s orders.

In land conservation, the “cake” is NOT the land acquisition alone. That’s an ingredient. The “cake” is the perpetual conservation of the natural resource the land represents. The so-called “conservation values.” The ingredients include the actual value of the land asset, the due diligence necessary before purchase, closing costs, any first-year stewardship concerns, defense funding for easement properties, and an endowment adequate to ensure perpetual stewardship and/or monitoring costs. These “ingredient costs” exist regardless of scale and independent of the fee or easement question.

And – this is true regardless of whether the land or easement is purchased or donated. We tend to accept the gift and close the deal. We tend to focus myopically on the single ingredient.

But we don’t have a conservation cake yet! We still need to gather all the other ingredients.

Some landowners can’t afford to donate the entire conservation cost. We all understand that. They can donate part of the conservation cost but not all of the conservation cost. So we need to combine efforts with other willing donors interested in the same outcomes. It doesn’t need to be articulated as “you buy the flour and I’ll buy the sugar.” In fact, that’s counter-productive. Instead, it’s a collective purchase.

Let’s buy a cake together.”


We need to stop talking about the ingredients and start talking about the quality of our cake. We need to learn to say: “This is what land conservation costs. Let’s conserve some land together.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




Photo by croisy courtesy Pixabay


PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



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  • Joseph D Allred
    Posted at 17:42h, 20 January

    I’m so very glad to see this presented in such plain English. It’s always been a ‘knit brow’ reaction each time I come across the
    Term ‘in perpetuity’.
    On this earth nothing is forever. Thanks.
    Joey Allred

  • David L
    Posted at 09:16h, 18 January

    This post touches, really, on the essence of being a land trust and how we talk about it — beyond accreditation. So, David, is the language akin to: “The Smiths donated their land’s development rights so that our community can enjoy (fill in the blank) forever. Now it’s up to all of us together to help take care of that bequest?” Or something?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:10h, 18 January

      Or – perhaps – “The Smiths have made an extraordinary gift toward conserving their land so that our community can enjoy (fill in the blank) forever. Your land trust is committing to raise the remaining $$$$$ of the conservation costs. Your gift today of $$ will help make that happen.”