Donor Focus: Getting John Q. Public to Hug a Tree
As philanthropic giving languished for many sectors in the nonprofit world, environmental organizations experienced a modest growth in donations of 3 percent in 2003, to $6.95 billion, according to “Giving USA 2004,” the annual report on the state of philanthropy released by the Giving USA Foundation.
Kalman Stein, president and CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Earth Share, an organization that promotes on-the-job giving to environmental groups through a nationwide network of affiliates, says one of the reasons for the marginal growth is the sector’s inability to make a more compelling case to everyday “soccer moms” and “suburban dads” — those individuals who might not be as aware of the problems caused by environmental neglect.
“There has been a lot of misinformation to portray the environmental-conservation community as out on the edge of the political spectrum,” Stein says, commenting on the diversity of most environmental-donor files. “The word ‘environment’ has become a spinned, challenged word just like ‘liberal.’”
What’s more, Stein says that since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, environmental issues have not weighed as heavily in the minds of mainstream America.
“There has been a re-ordering of public priorities, and Sept. 11 placed personal security much higher on peoples’ lists,” Stein says. “There’s a pretty good consensus out there that environmental issues are not as compelling now as they were for people prior to Sept. 11, which makes the job of fundraising a lot more challenging.”
To illustrate, consider the most recent “Giving and Volunteering in the United States” study, conducted by Independent Sector in 2000 and released in 2001, that had environmental organizations drawing contributions from 21.5 percent of American households, and arts and culture/humanities organizations receiving gifts from 18.8 percent.
“Fundraising is hanging in there, but these are tough times for us,” Stein says. “We’re still speaking to a flat audience.”
Giving through Earth Share was virtually flat in 2001 and increased by only 3 percent from 2002 to 2003. Last year the organization logged $14 million in workplace-giving donations.
“On some level we should all be environmentalists — we all breathe the air and drink the water,” Stein adds.
A unique pool
For Tom McGuire, vice president of membership programs for the National Wildlife Federation, a member-supported wildlife- and environmental-conservation group based in Reston, Va., the task of broadening the appeal remains arduous.
“Our research tells us that there are 50 [million] to 60 million Americans — one out of every three — who really care about the environment,” McGuire shares. “But when you look at all the housefiles in the sector, we’ve got maybe 3 [million] or 4 million of those people.”
Most environmental files represent the same core donor constituency: well-educated, affluent, older, suburban and predominantly white. Of that universe, about half fall into the distinct “user-group” category — hikers, bicyclists, campers, anglers, hunters, etc., people who generally enjoy the outdoors and wish to preserve a place for their chosen activities.
NWF’s file, for example, is composed of 931,739 24-month donors — 61 percent of which are female. Members of the organization are active sportsmen and nature enthusiasts, as well as individuals who care deeply about endangered wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization, maintains approximately 519,329 donors similar to that of NWF. (The organizations most likely share many of the same names.) According to Names in the News California, the Oakland, Calif.-based list firm that manages Defenders’ housefile, 68 percent are women, 33 percent are college educated, 37 percent are over age 65, and 35 percent are between the ages of 50 and 64.
But like Stein, McGuire acknowledges the need to attract a new choir of donors and supporters by freshening fundraising approaches. NWF has kick-started such initiatives online.
Roughly 100,000 subscribers receive the “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” newsletter, a segmented publication that provides tips and news for people who live in rural areas throughout the country. Thus far, more than 800,000 donors and prospects have signed up at www.NWF.org to receive new updates pertaining to wildlife and conservation issues via e-mail.
The Internet certainly has presented myriad opportunities “to reach folks we are not reaching now who are receptive to our work,” McGuire notes.
The National Resources Defense Council recorded a strong year in 2003, taking in $47 million in total donations — a significant increase from 2002, where it took in $32 million. NRDC also increased membership income from 17.5 million to 22 million.
“We have had a solid couple of years in terms of fundraising and membership growth, and one of the big positive changes, particularly, has been with our online fundraising and activism,” says Jack Murray, development director of New York-based NRDC.
The charity’s Web site, www.NRDC.org, features a section called “Earth Action Center,” where visitors can send elected officials personalized e-mails on just about every issue threatening natural resources. Among the hot topics: “Tell the EPA to phase out ozone-destroying, cancer-causing methyl bromide”; and “Urge your representative to help restore our oceans’ declining fish stocks.”
“This is a pretty active group,” Murray shares. “They write letters, send e-mails, make phone calls and sign petitions.”
NRDC boasts more than 550,000 “online activists” — individuals defined internally as those who take action on behalf of the organization and might or might not contribute actual dollars.
While the organization has broadened its reach via the Web, Murray has observed that NRDC’s online activists are just as well educated and affluent as their offline counterparts but are significantly younger. Direct mail contributors are in their 50s, while online prospects and donors hover around age 30.
But “our online activists become donors at the same rate or greater than our offline donors,” Murray says.