Pick Them Up – Change Your Donor’s Perspective

Pick Them Up – Change Your Donor’s Perspective


21 March 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Quick – you’re off to meet with a donor and you can take one and only one prop with you. What do you take?

Answer: A map.

People love maps, and they love them because maps help place conservation projects in a landscape context.

Here’s where we are right now. Here’s where you live. And here’s the project we’ve been talking about. See? It connects this protected land to that protected area. That means that the [fill in the blank: birds, butterflies, moose, ocelots, or whatever] have a “migratory corridor” to move in between protected areas.


So, what’s even better than a map?

A flyover.


When I worked in Oregon for TNC, one year we chartered a KingAir – a six-passenger, twin-prop airplane – to show donors what the state looked like from the air. With six passenger seats, we were able to accommodate two couples, a board member “host” and a knowledgeable staff guide.

The agenda included an hour or so flight along the Columbia River Gorge, an overnight near Joseph OR, a drive up to a preserve property at dawn, and a return flight along the Cascade Peaks the next day.

We did about four of these trips with each one costing us about $2,000. They would be more like $6,000 each now, but the return on investment was in the hundreds of thousands.

Put the right people in the plane, and the return would be even greater today.


I was reminded of these trips several years ago when I learned about Lighthawk for the first time.

Lighthawk is a non-profit organization that matches volunteer pilots and their airplanes with non-profit organizations who could benefit from seeing the landscape from the air. Here’s what their website says:

We accelerate conservation success through the powerful perspective of flight. We know that aviation can greatly enhance conservation work, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. We also know that aviation resources are often too costly for conservation efforts, even if their value and contribution is understood.

We tap into our network of 300 volunteer pilots who donate expertise, time, aircraft, and fuel to support the project, making flight support free of direct cost to our partners.


For the record, Lighthawk does not offer flights in KingAir airplanes that I know of. Most of their airplanes are smaller four-seaters, and the pilot takes one of those. So we’re talking about a donor couple plus a staff guide, or a single donor plus a board member plus a staff guide. And they’re God-awful noisy.

On the other hand, they’re free.

Lighthawk asks only that you report back to them information based on specific metrics for the campaign and flights – how much money was raised, for example.

The Lighthawk process involves signing up as a “partner” organization. They have to approve you as a partner, but then they work with you directly to envision how such a flight might help you communicate a story to donors. You pour over maps and identify specific locations to see from the air. And you take a test flight with staff and/or board members to help visualize the experience.


Flights don’t need to be long to be effective – 30 to 60 minutes might be all it takes.

Maybe you fly over protected areas and areas that are not protected yet. Maybe you see how protecting and restoring one tract can help connect other protected areas. Maybe you see the effects of subdivision and development versus an unbroken landscape. Maybe you see how a particular neighborhood community fits into a larger watershed. Maybe you see an entire watershed for the first time.

What’s the story you want to tell donors? Chances are getting them in the air could help.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *

This might be a bit of a stretch, but there was a motivational speaker a while back named Walter Bond who encouraged parents to pick their children up. (Bond was a professional basketball player in the NBA for three seasons.) Bond said that picking children up is very important, because “when you pick a child up, you change their perspective. When you pick a child up, all the sudden they can see the world the way you see it.


To some extent, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with donor stewardship, too. Change their perspective – help people see the world the way we see it. Show them both possibility and opportunity.

And a powerful way to do that is to get them up in the air.


Consider the effect the blue marble photo captured by Apollo 17 had in 1972. Those of us whose lives span that historic date know that it changed the way all humans looked at the Earth – forever. Through the lens of Apollo17’s on-board camera, we were all picked up. And it changed our perspective.

Perhaps you have volunteer pilots you already know. Perhaps Lighthawk makes sense for you. Perhaps renting a larger plane is the answer.

Regardless, as you develop your donor stewardship plans for the year, think about creative ways to tell your story. Change their perspective. Show them both possibility and opportunity. And translate that into increased fundraising potential.

A map could help – it always has.


Maybe getting them in the air could help, too.


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.


PPS: This post has been updated from a post originally published in 2017.


Photo by Michal Jarmoluk, courtesy pixabay.com



Share this!
  • Heidi Habeger
    Posted at 10:23h, 21 March

    I’ve wondered about the possibility of offering [tethered] hot air balloon rides at one of our preserves to give the bird’s-eye view. This got me thinking about that again….

    • David Allen
      Posted at 11:21h, 21 March

      I think it’s a great idea. (Can I volunteer to do the test flight?)

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 07:48h, 21 March

    There is nothing like the view from the air. We are fortunate enough to have 2 pilots on our board who offer up their services for monitoring and donor flights.

  • Lee Schiller
    Posted at 07:38h, 21 March

    I would think showing donors video shot from a drone would be more practical in many cases, and could reach a much larger audience.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:59h, 21 March


      Thank you so much for your comment. It’s easy to agree with your message and that from Michael as well. I also don’t want the point to be lost. Drone footage is a fabulous tool, and “if you can’t take Mohammed to the mountain …” But drone footage is not even close to being an equivalent experience to seeing the landscape from an airplane. The King-Air experience I described was never meant for a larger audience, and I didn’t mean to imply that it would be practical to use in a mass-market sense. I don’t see drone footage as an alternative to being there – I see it as a “Yes, and …

      Again – very provocative. Thank you for writing!

  • Michael Tobin
    Posted at 07:04h, 21 March

    Of course, your advice on the aerial perspective is right on, but you fail to mention a more cost effective, environmentally friendly, and easier route to the air–the drone (i.e. quadcopter). At the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust in Massachusetts, we have used a drone for multiple purposes. First, creating visually stunning video tours of our sanctuaries, from skimming across the still water of a vernal pool to soaring over the trees. (One viewer commented that she is wheelchair-bound, but watching the video made her feel lighter than air!) Secondly, creating baseline photos of our properties from the air, including of sensitive areas like in wetlands that are also difficult to reach on foot. And perhaps most importantly, the aerial shot of tree stumps surrounding a sports court under construction enabled not only a legal court win against a violated Conservation Restriction for our land trust, but also a Massachusetts legal precedent set that benefitted all land trusts in Massachusetts! (https://www.wellesleyconservationcouncil.org/wclt-news/mass-appeals-court-sets-precedent-for-conservation-land-damage) Go drones!