Raising Money for Stewardship – Part 1

Raising Money for Stewardship – Part 1

25 April 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Question of the month: Any recommendations on how to raise money for stewardship?

As a matter of fact, yes. So happy you asked!

The best time to raise money for stewardship is coincidentally with raising money for everything else related to the conservation projects. Present stewardship as one of the core costs related to land conservation. The problem is that we haven’t trained ourselves to raise money for conservation. We’ve trained ourselves – and our donors – to raise money just for land acquisition. That we now don’t have enough money for stewardship is a problem of our own creation.

So step one would be to STOP talking about land acquisition. The first step in getting out of the hole is to stop digging it.


Several years ago, the blogger Vu Le wrote a hilarious post about funders who refused to pay for overhead. He compared the phenomenon to a bakery. Imagine wanting to buy a cake and not being willing to pay for overhead: lights, heat, accounting, and so on.

So now imagine this same bakery only basing the cost of its cakes on the price it paid for the sugar. And then having to come back to its customers for more money to cover the cost of the flour later.

NO – the baker needs to talk to its customers about the cost of the cake – fully inclusive of what it takes – sugar, flour, butter, and overhead! – to make it.

And we need to start talking about land conservation in the same way.


The Fair Market Value (FMV) of the land asset

PLUS     The cost of due diligence and closing

PLUS     Stewardship endowment

PLUS     First year stewardship

PLUS     First day stewardship



Note that the FMV of the land asset is a critical piece of the formula regardless of whether the value is fee or easement and regardless of whether the land is acquired through gift, bargain sale, or full FMV sale. When a donor gifts a piece of land to be conserved, you still have fundraising to do to conserve it! ERGO, even when the land asset is donated, you still talk about the full cost of conservation, with a lead gift already secured. Plus the land donor is recognized as a DONOR to the project.

The Stewardship Endowment is a fund that spins off enough money to fully fund the stewardship activities on that property forever (and may not actually be an IRS-qualified “endowment”). First-year stewardship is the money you need to cover first-year stewardship costs (because the endowment hasn’t had time to do its thing yet). And first-day stewardship covers the one-time expenses you have immediately upon taking possession – signage, trash cleanup, fencing, and so on.

The problem, of course, is that most of these costs related to stewardship are unknown and relatively unknowable at the time of purchase. The annualized stewardship costs will be ideally based on a site conservation plan which may be years in the making. And stewardship staff may be reluctant to guess – because they are scientists.

In comparison, the purchase price is concrete and known.

What to do?


First you can train your stewardship folks to make a guess anyway. Base it on historical experience. Base it on their best judgement. (Their best judgement will be better than yours!)

Alternatively, you can project stewardship costs based on some arbitrary number – like 15% of the purchase price – that represents some kind of reasonable average. Some properties won’t need that much. Others might need more.

The point isn’t to be accountably accurate. No one is going to slap us on the wrist twenty years from now because we estimated too high or too low. On the other hand, they WILL complain that we didn’t raise money for stewardship at all.


OK, so if we HAVEN’T raised money for stewardship at all, and we’ve made the change from talking about the price of land acquisition to talking about the costs of conservation, how do we make up for the hole we’ve dug for ourselves to this point?

      • Estimate endowment intentionally high – instead of 15%, estimate stewardship endowment at 25% (or more!) and use the extra money to start alleviating the backlog.
      • Major Gift fundraising – if you have a strong major gift development program, look for donors who understand stewardship and ask them to make a gift toward the endowment in addition to whatever they might be giving already. Note that this is not about “selling” anyone on stewardship. It’s about finding people who are already “sold.”
      • Capital campaign for stewardship – if you have enough major gift donors already identified, you could start a campaign just for stewardship. But keep in mind endowment campaigns are notoriously difficult unless your interested constituency has already been identified.
      • Include stewardship is campaigns that raise money for everything else – when stewardship is included in a comprehensive capital campaign, is should not be the largest component.
      • Planned giving – a strong planned giving program is the best option for capitalizing endowment in the long run. The discipline will be to dedicate unrestricted bequests to endowment instead of using them to buy more land.


I’ll have more to say about finding stewardship prospects in next week’s post. But let’s make one last point here first: communicating about stewardship is important in fundraising, but not in the way we generally do it.

We should lead all of our stewardship communications with the WHY instead of the WHAT. Talk first about stewardship as an organizational value instead of leading with descriptions of stewardship activities and projects.

If we take good care of the Earth, the Earth will take good care of us. When we heal the land, we are also healed.

These ideas are more powerful than removal of invasives, selective thinning, and prescribed burns.


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 Zsuzska, courtesy pixabay.com



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1 Comment
  • Alex Wilson
    Posted at 12:05h, 26 April

    Hi David, I appreciate this post and look forward to the follow up. A tactic we’ve been using is very similar to yours: we talk about the “total cost of ‘forever conservation'” or “total cost of ‘in perpetuity conservation'” of a property. We talk about what that means more generally: 1) researching the conservation project (“due diligence”); 2) acquiring it; 3) restoring it; and 4) “caring for it”/”stewarding it” forever. We also try to naturally talk about the “long-term” work ahead, for both restoration and ongoing stewardship, but the focus is on describing the work not on the breakdown of “funds.” We try not to let our donors get mired in the detailed, “fund-level” finances, and instead focus on the “long-term” or “forever” impact of their support. We do celebrate the various funding streams (“income”) that has come together to make projects happen for various reasons.

    That said, some donors require a closer look under the hood, especially major donors, or donors with a particular eye for finance. For those folks, we have at the ready a more detailed budget we feel comfortable sharing externally, and we continue to refine how we talk about funding stewardship–or why stewardship is part of the overall costs. By reserving that more detailed budget for people who request it, it enables us to have the targeted conversation about stewardship with them directly (if needed). Thus far, this approach has worked for us.

    Educating donors/subscribers/members about stewardship more generally feels equally important. We also try to feature more stores about restoration and general stewardship, not necessarily linked to current fundraising projects, but instead to keep educating folks about our ongoing commitments.

    Getting folks involved in restoration and stewardship has been invaluable. We have volunteer opportunities, and continue to increase them. We are also starting a “land steward” program, to have volunteers dedicated to walking specific locations to keep an eye on things. In addition to actual volunteers gaining hands on experience, the photos and stories of their volunteer work help educate our broader audience.

    Thanks again!