By Sue Hix, Chair, Be Wild Campaign for Youth Nature Education
It took us almost 2 years to the day to reach (and exceed) our goal of raising $250,000, but we did it. It was by no means easy, yet it wasn’t as hard as we thought it might be, either. So what’s the story?
The Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge had been advocating for a visitor/classroom facility for the refuge almost since we became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1993. After countless letters, meetings, visits with Congress members, phone calls, plans, and ups and downs (including a recession), 20 years later we still found ourselves hosting event visitors and student groups out of tents with portable toilets as restrooms. In the meantime, however, we had grown to nearly 400 paid members, including individuals, families, and businesses. We had spent a lot of time spreading the word about the amazing, free resource that the refuge is, and we had gone through the sometimes contentious process of designing a new logo, re-branding ourselves, and attracting new members. We now had a wide reach and a little clout besides.
The years spent developing good relationships with our Congresswoman and members of the regional staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid off in 2013 as the stars finally aligned: The USFWS would construct a classroom building at the refuge. We were thrilled that they had construction costs covered, but since their budget didn’t provide enough to complete the project, our Friends organization committed to raise money to furnish the building and enhance the nearby learning spaces with trails, sidewalks, signage, landscaping; and a floating platform for wetland education. The challenge was on.
Since we had worked successfully with Katrina Pierson on our membership development and re-branding projects, we contracted with her and Vela Strategy again to be our campaign counsel. This proved to be one of the most important decisions we would make during our Be Wild Campaign for Youth Nature Education. But this wasn’t the only key to our success. What else did it take?
- We had a plan. With the help of Katrina and her associates, we developed a road map for our campaign, complete with action steps, timelines, plans for materials and other communications, and resources needed. It was difficult to contain the initial enthusiasm of some of our volunteers, but it was worth it so that we were able to approach our first prospects with a theme, consistent message, and professional materials. Katrina’s guidance was invaluable.
- Besides having a plan, we started “close to home” by selecting a steering committee that consisted of a few key board members along with area business people and retirees who were also Friends members. These people had well-established and extensive networks, and they were all committed to the cause. They were so committed, in fact, that when all was said and done, we calculated that 28% of funds raised had come from steering committee members, board members, and refuge staff! Beyond that, of gifts given by individuals and businesses, almost all came from Friends members, refuge volunteers, or their friends, families, and associates. Networks, reputation and credibility within the community, and personal relationships were huge success factors—more than 78% of our donors came through our personal connections.
- We pursued all our options. Knowing that “people give for their reasons, not ours” and that some of our “hot” prospects were likely to be cold to our cause, we promoted our cause to community organizations and pursued grants from businesses and foundations. Besides soliciting our members for cash gifts, we accepted “in-kind” gifts of goods and services that we otherwise would have had to purchase. We encouraged prospects to give in memory of loved ones, for donors to pursue matches from their employers, and for anyone who wanted to spread out payments over time to take advantage of making a pledge through the Initiative Foundation, with which we had an established relationship. In the end, approximately 40% of the amount raised came from members and friends, nearly 16% as gifts in memory of loved ones, almost 15% from businesses, 14% from grants, 5.5% as in-kind gifts, and close to 5% each from community organizations and employer matches. It “took a village…”
- We were positive, polite, and persistent and found ways to keep the fun in FUNdraising. Prospects are focused on their own timelines and priorities, but we remained polite and persistent until we got “yes,” “not now,” or “no” for an answer. We sponsored prospect events with refreshments, friends, and short presentations. We kept in touch with our members and donors and got news about our campaign into local papers. We partnered up to make calls and presentations. Besides sending the required “IRS/thank-you letters,” we took care that every donor received a special, handwritten thank-you note. And, equally important, we stayed positive, encouraging, and supportive with each other. As a team, we all had something valuable to offer, and everyone gave generously to the extent their circumstances allowed—whether gifts were financial, personal and professional connections, time and commitment, creative ideas, positive energy, or emotional support.
- Finally, we recognized that every gift matters. Our smallest gift was from a mom, kids in tow, who dug in her purse to find $3 because she wanted to “give something.” One of the most memorable was from an 8-year-old who withdrew $20 from his piggy bank so that other kids would be able to have the kind of nature experiences that he had enjoyed. And then there was the time we were expecting to receive $2,500 but instead got a check for $25,000, or the call from a brand new donor who wished to give $10,000, or the presentation that seemed like a bust but resulted in gifts totaling more than $6,000. I should also mention the generous challenge from one of our steering committee members: Raise $25,000 in new money by year-end, and I’ll match it dollar for dollar. (We did, and he did!)
A capital campaign is not a casual undertaking. But with prepared, committed, passionate people behind it and the support of outside counsel like Katrina and Vela Strategy, you can be as successful as we were. Good luck!