Four Paradigm Shifts I Wish Every Land Trust Would Make and Why

Four Paradigm Shifts I Wish Every Land Trust Would Make and Why


28 March 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Several years ago before COVID, I developed a Fundraising 101 workshop and presented it at one of the land trust conferences. It was intended for people who either are brand new to fundraising or just want to learn a little about how fundraising works.

The mental exercise of trying to talk about fundraising to people who know very little gave me an excuse to revisit some of the things people with a lot of experience are simply getting wrong – at least in my humble opinion.

I present several ideas here as “paradigm shifts” – changes in thinking that could help land trust staff and volunteers raise more money.

There are undoubtedly other items that could make this list, but here are my top four:


  1. We are helping donors do something important

We talk and act as if we are asking donors to help us do something we want to do – justified as something “important.” And then we go on and on rationalizing why what we are doing should be seen as important.

Our “reasoning” is very “reasoned.” We’re protecting habitat. We’re mitigating climate change. We’re educating those who don’t know the benefits of Nature. And it’s concrete and quantified – acres and nesting pairs and classes and programs.

The problem is that our very reasoned arguments are not necessarily related to the reasons people actually make decisions to give. Reasons that are more emotional than intellectual. Like love and loss.

People give because it feels good. Because giving and protecting land is a personal or family value. Because they grew up there or watched the seasons come and go there or saw their first bald eagle there. Or fell in love there.

If we change the way we approach raising money – if we think less about asking people to support OUR interests and more about finding opportunities to support THEIR interests – if we prioritize learning and discovery over teaching and selling – we will raise more money.


  1. We focus on the NET

Most of the time, we focus on the gross and the expense. We assume the gross will remain the gross even if we reduce the expenses. If we can just hold the expenses down, we will be able to provide more money for our programs. That mindset is baked into every plan and every budget we write. And we even brag about how low our percentage fundraising costs are.

When we focus on holding down expenses, we accept arbitrary limits what we are able to do. “We raised $25,000 last year. How much program work can we get done for that?” As if our available resources are that finite.

Instead we should be asking a different question: “How much money do we need to raise – net – to accomplish our mission?

If we change the way we approach spending money on fundraising – if we think less about the PERCENT we are spending on fundraising and more about how MUCH MONEY we are raising for program – if we prioritize making the investments necessary to raise the money we need – we will raise more money.


  1. Major describes the decision, not the person

We routinely refer to donors as “major” donors when and if they give above some arbitrary amount – like $250 or $500. And then our “major donor” program is the part of the program that results in $250 gifts.

Sometimes we change the way we thank major donors – like calling them in addition to sending a form letter receipt. But most of the time we just treat them the same as everyone else.

Instead, the adjective “major” should describe the decision and not the person. Anyone – everyone – is capable of making a major gift – for them. And it’s not a dollar amount arbitrarily chosen by us. It’s determined by them – by how they see themselves as donor as much as how much money they have. One person’s $1,000 would be an enormous decision. For another, it might be pocket change.

If we understand more about the magnitude of the decision for each individual donor – if we cultivate, solicit, and steward donors less as faceless groups and more as individual decision-makers – if we respond to the magnitude of the decision they are making more so than the magnitude of the gift – we will raise more money.


  1. Plan for donors saying YES

There are many reasons a donor might not give to our land trust, but one of the most important ones is that they aren’t really asked. And that’s the one most clearly in our control.

We don’t help ourselves. We focus on all the reasons someone might say NO. Bad timing, can’t afford it, not interested in the project, health challenges, spouse wouldn’t approve – the list is endless. The problem is that these barriers are all coming from us – based on assumptions about how they will respond.

As a result, we fail to provide critical information that might help that person make room in their financial plans for a significant gift – desire to make a difference, love of the land, personal values that include the conservation of natural spaces – that list is endless as well. When we can’t imagine the person saying yes, they often don’t. We are, in effect, saying no for them.

If we spend enough time with donors to learn of their individual passions and interests – if we focus on supporting the reasons they might have for saying YES more so than the reasons they might have for saying NO – if we provide story-based information that supports their individual passions and interests – we will raise more money.


Change your assumptions. Change your paradigm. Raise more money.


Cheers, and have a great week!




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.


Photo by SUNFLAIR, courtesy



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1 Comment
  • Rich
    Posted at 07:01h, 28 March

    This is all spot on. Love it! Thanks for all you do.