Last Look: An Interview With David Duncan, Director of Membership and Development, Civil War Preservation Trust
Civil War Preservation Trust resulted from a merger between two battlefield preservation organizations — the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites and the Civil War Trust — in late 1999, so at just 10 years old, it is fairly young as a national nonprofit. In the decade since the merger, CWPT has raised about $75 million from private donors, which has gone toward protecting a total of 28,000 acres of hallowed ground.
Here, we talk with Director of Membership and Development David Duncan about the organization and its fundraising strategies and challenges.
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
David Duncan: Even after 10 years, direct mail continues to produce the majority of our revenue, with individual major gifts making up most of the rest, with an occasional bequest or foundation grant giving an added boost. Our newly redesigned Web site, www.civilwar.org is quickly gaining ground, however, and we get better each month in securing online gifts.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
DD: The acquisition of new members/donors continues to be one of our biggest challenges. The only way I know to overcome it is to continue to mail to core lists, testing whenever possible. Also, communicate with everyone from the board of trustees on down that — despite the impulse for caution — you absolutely, positively still must be in the mail; you cannot shut down acquisition. Limited testing in some of the donor models may also help, but I’m not convinced it is a panacea. Fortunately, we have a very low attrition rate, so even with our modest acquisition numbers, we are able to keep our overall membership steady.
We also have yet to get to that one person capable of an eight-figure gift who wants to make Civil War battlefield preservation his personal legacy, but I know they are out there!
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
DD: Unless the Postal Service goes out of business, direct mail will always play a role in our fundraising. Clearly, however, a world-class Web site can provide so much richer content than anything we could ever afford to put into an envelope, and at a greatly reduced cost. This is no great insight, but I believe the key to our future success is to have all of these channels working together and supporting each other.
We are also looking at ways to get great historical content to people via phone technology so that a battlefield visitor can not only access maps and narrations via their phones, but can also find out about battlefield preservation while actually visiting a battlefield. This is potentially a great way to reach a much wider audience at a significantly reduced cost, and at the exact moment they are ready for such a message.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
DD: We work under several key tenets; the main one we took directly from the former president of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Dan Jordan: “Good will above all.” To us that means always being the best possible stewards we can be of a donor’s generosity, maintaining good will with our supporters above all else. If you do that, our experience is that the money will take care of itself. I also operate under the philosophy that if you don’t spend at least as much time saying “thank you” as you do asking for money, then you aren’t doing it right. The final guiding principle is that fundraising success is all about building relationships, from the $25 donor to the $25,000 benefactor. This takes enormous amounts of time, but if you really put the effort into treating your donors as partners rather than just names in a database, often you won’t even have to ask for a gift — they will say, “What would you like me to do?” We do this even in our direct mail. By design, our letters are very personal in tone, and are often long and very detailed, filled with lots of information — we include battle maps of the land we’re trying to buy and often add historic images of the site contrasted with modern photos of the landscape. In this e-mail and Twitter age, long copy is often frowned upon, but by providing relevant content, we get consistently great results. And we’ve had many members tell us they actually look forward to receiving mail from us. They even bind the maps we create for our mailings and bring the collection with them when they visit battlefields. How many other organizations can say that?
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
DD: I would describe all of 2009 as a successful effort, in that our membership base has not dropped since October of 2008, our revenue from appeals and membership is actually up slightly, and that our major donors don’t seem to be quite as gun-shy as they were this time last year. I believe our success is directly attributable to us maintaining a high level of quality and professionalism in our communications, a relentless focus on the mission, and our reputation for effectiveness and efficiency. These didn’t just happen in 2009; it is the culture of the organization that has been built up over time.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
DD: We have never “cracked the code” for truly effective foundation or corporate fundraising. Also, again, still looking for that eight-figure, game-changing donor. If we had the resources, I would hire more people who could do one-on-one visits with donors. Those visits cement relationships and always produce good long-term results.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
DD: First and foremost, smash all the silos. Now. If the planned giving department is fighting the major gift officers over prospects who come in through direct mail or the Web, you will never get anywhere. Next, don’t worry too much about “protecting” your best donors from getting your direct mail — unless they ask you to. I’ve had a million-dollar donor tell me that he looks forward to getting the battlefield maps we send out in our 50-cent mailings. We routinely get $1,000-plus gifts from our direct mail packages, and they are appearing on the Web site more and more often. Think about that — that’s a big-ticket purchase on a Web site! The key is to present relevant, informative, personal, engaging messages, and then your mailings or e-mail messages won’t be seen as an intrusion. Give your donors every opportunity to support your mission, and let them choose how much they want to participate.
FS: Additional thoughts?
DD: Everyone in an organization is a development officer. Even if they are not actively raising donations, every person’s job contributes to the bottom line, as long as they are engaged in creating a quality organization, which, in turn, makes it far easier for the fundraisers to “sell” your mission. Donors in this economy are cutting back to a core list of groups they are willing to support, and I believe they are looking for quality and effectiveness. You must exceed their expectations in every communication with them — mailings, Web site, newsletters, programs, events — or they will take their donations elsewhere.
Joe Boland is copy editor and staff writer for the Target Marketing Group at FS’ parent company, NAPCO. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org