Clear the Air
Identifying environmentalists is the greatest challenge environment-focused organizations face.
That according to Mary O’Connor, vice president of development for The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting America’s landscapes and waterways.
“Unlike schools, we don’t have alumni; unlike hospitals, we don’t have former patients,” she says. “Environmentalists come to the sector from different experiences — from traveling to Alaska, to spending summers at the beach, to hiking in the mountains. Nature is so multi-faceted it’s difficult to find one type of conservation project that speaks to all
Jim Abernathy agrees. As executive director of the Environmental Support Center, a training and consulting firm that helps environmental organizations, he sees environmental groups struggle to identify their potential donor markets.
“Environmental donors are as varied and complex as the issues they support,” he says. “Too often they’re characterized as Democrats or liberals, which are short-sighted labels. I think the unifying issues are healthy
communities, concern for one’s family and the future of the planet.”
Overcoming the challenges
“Donors won’t support organizations that don’t explain the problem and solution simply and effectively,” says Catherine Fox, development director for the Save-the-Redwoods League. “Remember that most people who support one environmental or conservation group support many other similar organizations. Thus, clarity of mission and clear articulation of the need that their money can address are imperatives for successful fundraising.”
When dealing with complex environmental issues, such as protecting land and water or reducing toxic emissions, it’s vital to use clear language in a fundraising campaign. Environmental groups must make the connection between the problem and [donors’] everyday lives.
“Too often in the environmental movement we become bogged down in science jargon — biodiversity, ecosystems, habitat,” O’Connor says. “These words can be exclusionary instead of inclusive. We prefer to talk about community, open space, connecting people to place. Find out why nature is interesting to people and connect conservation to that.”
Getting the message across clearly is something Abernathy stresses to his environmental clients, telling them they need to take a lesson from the commercial and political worlds. These strategies include:
- Test the waters. Focus groups, for example, are excellent ways to understand how people interpret environmental messages. Bring in randomly selected people and lay out different ways to explain a concept. Find out what kinds of words and images work.
- Create an ad campaign. Like selling products or politicians, environmental groups must define a clear message and find the best ways to convey that message.
- Use direct mail effectively. Despite the dawn of e-philanthropy, direct mail still is an important way to reach out to donors. Use it to convey your ad message. Perhaps more important among this donor demographic than most others is the need to mail responsibly and with regard to natural resources. Too much mail or too many premiums might make donors think you aren’t practicing what you preach.
- Don’t just solicit members; keep them. The environmental sector is overrun with cutesy premiums, but it’s widely accepted that relying on premium-based acquisitions or renewals can lead to low retention rates. Abernathy stresses that conveying the cause — and the organization’s work on that cause — is critical. Contact members regularly with updates, and do it in a way that’s attractive and meaningful.
Christine Weiser is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.