An Interview with Sean Scanlon, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a world leader in the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. According to its website, "Our hallmarks are scientific excellence and technological innovation to advance the understanding of nature and to engage people of all ages in learning about birds and protecting the planet."
Its annual operating budget is $21 million, and it has a staff of 240 people.
Here, FundRaising Success talks with Sean B. Scanlon, senior director of development and philanthropy, at the organization.
FundRaising Success: How does The Cornell Lab of Ornithology fund its mission?
Sean Scanlon: Somewhat surprisingly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is completely self-funded. It is not financially supported by Cornell University. Of the $21 million l raised annually, 40 percent comes from research grants by our faculty, about 35 percent from philanthropy and 25 percent from all other sources, including a small endowment, program income, contracts and some licensing revenue. The diverse sources are a real strength of the organization and a credit to the program directors here.
FS: What are the Lab's fundraising strengths/weaknesses?
SS: The Lab's strength in fundraising begins with a broad and growing base of national support through our membership program. In total we have more than 45,000 annual donors, 95 percent of whom have no affiliation with Cornell University.
Because of our leadership on the Web (see www.allaboutbirds.org and www.ebird.org, for example) and the Lab's scientific authority on birds, we have been able to generate tremendous Web traffic with more than 9 million unique visitors each year. I cannot say enough about our communications team at the Lab. They are the best in the nonprofit world through Web communications, print magazines and unmatched multimedia. In addition, the Lab has a very strong national administrative board that has provided amazing leadership and support for the past 30 years.
Another obvious strength is the partnership with Cornell University's Alumni Affairs and Development program, which is one of the best in the world. However, for many years the Lab was not ready to invest in a full development program and therefore did not fully take advantage of the natural partnerships with Cornell's AAD. We have been working to change that over the past four years, including more emphasis on major and planned gifts, private foundations and corporate sponsorship.
FS: How does the organization engage donors and other supporters and potential
supporters in ways other than purely fundraising efforts?
SS: This is one of the most exciting parts of the Lab! The Cornell Lab is the world-leading organization in the field of Citizen Science. We have many programs, headlined by Project Feederwatch and www.eBird.org, engage hundreds of thousands of people in monitoring birds and the environment, and then contributing that data to the Lab for research. Last year, more than 140,000 different people contributed data around the world. And the number of contributions is growing almost exponentially.
All of that data is has created the largest database for studying the movement and changes of bird populations. When you look at the unique combination of high-quality programs at the Lab — advanced machine learning, big-data science, broad-scale participation, amazing training of generations of scientists for conservation, and tremendous communications programs, the Lab has a unique and effective model for 21st-century conservation.
FS: Can you share a recent fundraising success? Why was it successful?
SS: The Lab is starting to see a significant increase in bequests and other planned gifts. Recently we received word of a $130,000 bequest from a long-time member of the Lab who had never given more than $35 during her ten years as a member. We are lucky to have a growing number of equally generous planned gifts each year from people who recognize the long-term value of a unique organization like the Lab. We believe this occurs because of the long-term loyalty to the Lab that our members develop through our award-winning publications like Living Bird Magazine, programs like the Home Study Course, participatory programs like Project Feederwatch and more.
But it also happens because we are investing in marketing our planned-giving program, careful segmentation with our database partner, and integration through our direct-mail program. In addition, we are proud of our commitment to friendly and intelligent member engagement. So over the decades, most members of the Lab participate with us on one level or another — sharing data or just sharing stories about their love of birds on their feeders. All of my colleagues have a real passion for friendly public accessibility.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way as far as
fundraising is concerned?
SS: Yes. I started at the Lab in the summer 2008, just in time for the worst economic recession in the past 70 years. It was a very challenging way to start. In addition, the development culture of the organization was very passive at the time. I am thrilled that we now have an excellent fundraising team, but changing the culture of the organization has been a slow and methodical process with some personnel and management setbacks during this difficult period.
FS: Any things you would do differently with your fundraising?
SS: Ithaca likes to joke about itself as "centrally isolated" — coming from Chicago, I can agree with that. This provides challenges for us to engage our members in events that help us build personal relationships. We are starting to think more creatively about how to meet our supporters across the country, beginning with a major-gift officer based in the AAD New York City office.
FS: What is the organization's fundraising philosophy?
SS: I believe that fundraising is an expression of values — by the donors and the organization. Therefore, we know that different people place different levels of emphasis on our mission and its impacts, and we try to meet them where they are.
We have a broad and traditional member base that ranges from $20 to $100 per year. Over the past three years we have also created an engaging mid-level program that is focused on experiences — birders like "to bird," and we do too. So, we plan birding trips where we can be amazed by nature, side by side with our supporters.
And finally we have a leadership giving level that is targeted at the people who truly understand the mission and the role of the organization and want to provide the critical resources for the director of the Lab.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours in size and
annual operating budget?
SS: Think carefully about the culture of your organization. You have to believe in the mission and the people to be able to give the organization the passion and commitment it deserves. Also, mid-sized organizations may need to take some time to develop a healthy understanding and balance of the role of philanthropy in the organization. Be strategic and patient in building trust and confidence of your non-development colleagues, because what we do can be confusing or off-putting to those outside the profession.