Home > Articles > A Capital Campaign in This Economy? Nature Conservancy in Georgia Beats the Odds

A Capital Campaign in This Economy? Nature Conservancy in Georgia Beats the Odds

The economy might be bringing you down, but at least one Georgia nonprofit saw opportunity in the downturn—and brought in more than $25 million as a result. Find out how The Nature Conservancy in Georgia built a fundraising campaign that was successful despite challenging economic times.

Mouth of the Altamaha River (c) Blake Gordon Photography

Since the financial collapse of 2008, it’s hard to find many silver economic linings: foreclosures, hiring freezes, and high unemployment have become “the new normal,” and charitable donations have yet to fully recover. Dig beneath the statistical trends, however, and you’ll find exceptions like The Nature Conservancy in Georgia: organizations that didn’t hit the brakes during the downturn but, instead, steadily accelerated donation goals and mission reach.

The Nature Conservancy, founded in 1951, works in all 50 states and more than 35 countries to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. The organization has protected more than 119 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide and operates more than 100 marine conservation projects globally. In Georgia, the organization has helped protect more than 300,000 of land across the state. Today, the focus is on freshwater quantity and quality, coastal resiliency and forest health.

The $25.9 million in private money raised through Georgia for Generations has also been leveraged to secure public funding, landowner donations, and additional matching gifts to realize a cumulative conservation impact of more than $147 million. 

At the end of 2013, the Conservancy announced the success of an ambitious capital campaign in Georgia which raised $25.9 million—well above their $25 million goal. Yes, the three-year Georgia for Generations campaign was initiated and executed in the midst 

“The challenging economy brought land prices to some of the lowest points in recent memory,” said Director of Philanthropy Tami Willadsen; the Conservancy’s work involves land acquisition and conservation, meaning that the downturn presented a significant opportunity. “But we went in owning the [idea] that the economy would improve, and that we had a compelling case in a difficult time.”

This isn’t to say the organization wasn’t asked by their trustees to address some significant financial concerns before the campaign’s launch. As a science-based organization, however, they formulated a data-driven strategic plan to win over critics as well as a donor population reluctant to give without evidence their money would be well-spent.

Kicking off a capital campaign

The campaign planning period began by asking conservation staff to identify the most important work they could achieve in a defined period of time. “It provided a very specific rallying point for the staff and our trustees, to know very clearly what we were going to accomplish, why it mattered, how it’s going to get done, and when,” said the Conservancy’s executive director in Georgia, Deron Davis.

With buy-in from staff and trustees secured, a campaign leadership team took shape. Longtime friends and supporters Tricia Allen and Jim Kennedy stepped into the role of honorary campaign chairs alongside trustees Pamela Isdell and Braye Boardman, who served as official co-chairs. This leadership team established a campaign committee in their image, mixing trustee members and community friends, and guided them in developing a multi-layered campaign strategy to take to potential donors.

“The campaign structure was designed to offer a wide range of opportunities so that it could appeal to many donors,” said Director of Marketing Sherry Crawley. Different pitches were formed for different donor profiles; donors driven by an altruistic vision of nature, for instance, were approached differently from those who give for the economic benefits of conservation. That stratified approach, in fact, helped them net $3 million from donors interested solely in global conservation projects. 

The strategy was also targeted geographically. Because the campaign’s conservation goals would affect every corner of the state, matching tactics to locales became an effective way to drive donations. One key acquisition—14,000 acres in the Altamaha River Basin—was realized by partnering with the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which had a history of investment in the region. 

“It started by us talking about why we love Georgia, and what makes it special for us,” said Crawley. “From that process, the concept of ensuring this place remains healthy and strong for future generations emerged.”

Messaging matters

Also key was the concise, compelling, and resonant messaging created by Conservancy staff. In addition to the campaign name, Georgia for Generations, they came up with the tagline “Woods, Water and Coast,” knowing how connected Georgians feel to the land and its legacy. Feeding off input from the campaign committee, a narrative was finalized that truly helped campaign leadership share the work of Georgia for Generations to their donor bases. 

“It started by us talking about why we love Georgia, and what makes it special for us,” said Crawley. “From that process, the concept of ensuring this place remains healthy and strong for future generations emerged.”

“Once everybody was in,” said Davis, “they worked incredibly hard to communicate across the donor landscape and I think they were inspired by the story, the ability to take complex challenges and clearly articulate the pathway for solutions.”

The campaign team and staff quickly realized that their well-defined, thoroughly developed plan was exactly the call-to-action donors would respond to in a time of economic instability. The final numbers seem to indicate they were right: nearly 25 percent of campaign givers had never given before to the Conservancy before. 

“We noticed that, because of the economy, donors were really [scrutinizing] the organizations they give to, taking a pragmatic look at the question, ‘what organizations are the most important to me?’” said Willadsen. “I had incredibly profound and close conversations with donors that I wasn’t able to have before, because people were really taking a serious look at what their philanthropy means and what the Conservancy means to them.”

Impact within and without

 “[The campaign] provided a very specific rallying point for the staff and our trustees, to know very clearly what we were going to accomplish, why it mattered, how it’s going to get done, and when.”

The Nature Conservancy in Georgia is most commonly known through their land acquisition efforts, but the funds generated through Georgia for Generations have been utilized much more broadly: planting 1.2 million trees, conducting vital research to help protect Georgia’s coastal resources, supporting innovative freshwater conservation projects and implementing a unique youth development program. The $25.9 million in private money has also been leveraged to secure public funding, landowner donations, and additional matching gifts to realize a cumulative conservation impact of more than $147 million. 

“We have a long history here, and this campaign just added the next layer,” said Crawley. “It put our work on to a new trajectory. It introduced us to new people, and it allowed us to have new conversations with our most dedicated supporters.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Georgia for Generations campaign demonstrates how a clear strategic plan, backed by hard work and engagement from both campaign leadership and staff, can generate impact that far outstrips initial goals. 

Dan Watson is a Communications and Marketing Coordinator at GCN.

* Georgia for Generations campaign leadership photography courtesy of Alex Arnett

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