This Earth Day, let’s conserve long-term investment

By April 18, 2017 April 19th, 2017 Return on Investment

Building a long-term strategic plan and fundraising strategy for non-profit organizations that rely heavily on annual operating revenue is a difficult task. It seems that a black swan event always enters the scene just as the plan is finally approved, throwing budgets into disarray.

A new black swan has recently been added to the flock in the form of budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency as recommended by the current U.S. government administration, and it’s especially relevant for environmental and conservation organizations that rely on local, state, and federal funding to carry out their missions.

Although this budget has little chance of passing Congress in its full form, even adopting half of the recommended cuts would have monumental impact on scores of conservation and environmental organizations throughout the country.

You might argue that federal support for conservation through direct funding has been in decline for quite a few years. That is true. Another sad but true fact is that funding from membership dues, corporate support, and programmatic income has also been in decline for many organizations.

In many cases, this leaves only one line for growth – individual giving.

Fortunately, generosity on the individual giving front continues to climb regardless of economic climate. Giving USA’s annual study of total giving in the United States reveals as much, showing 2015 as the most generous year in history with more than $373 billion given. Individuals account for more than 70% of this generosity (not including bequests), while corporate giving only accounts for a small fraction of the total.

Here’s the true quandary. Building a strong individual giving program arguably requires the most intensive and committed long-term planning (not good for organizations focused on cash flow following a crisis).

At Graham-Pelton, we have witnessed these trends for some time. Among individual giving, the truly strong growth pattern we have consistently seen is with major gifts. This was even true during the recent economic downturn, when major giving only experienced a temporary retreat in 2009 until it recovered quickly and set new all-time records.

This is not news to many development professionals in conservation organizations. However, organizational leadership, staff, and boards may struggle with this reality. Long-term investment in major giving is often overlooked or taken for granted. Hiring top talent takes months, and identifying and cultivating prospects often takes years before success is seen.

This is often too long of a process for boards and leadership to commit to this cycle and support it with energy and conviction, especially at smaller organizations. If I may trumpet one notion above all, however, it is this:

Your investment in major gift development will take time to pay off, but it can be powerful for even the smallest of conservation organizations.

During the downturn, many conservation organizations cut or postponed their investment in major giving efforts and are suffering still because of those decisions. Instead, fundraising efforts were refocused on quick-fix efforts with emergency direct mail, social media appeals, and costly events to generate cash flow.

This most recent crisis will without a doubt have boards at conservation organizations across the country convening about readdressing strategic plans and questioning fundraising strategies. The natural instinct will be to turn to urgent messaging through social media, new awareness campaigns, and special committees to carry out this task. In this climate, these tactics are important and can be highly effective for short-term cash flow.

But like it or not, black swan events won’t go extinct anytime soon. So let’s learn our lesson from the last recession and resist cutting long-term investment for short-term gain.

— Brian O’Leary, Senior Manager

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