It has been a difficult year for environmental nonprofits. State budget cuts have meant fewer grants and philanthropic endowments have suffered with the stock market. Meanwhile, the focus of giving has shifted towards social issues, like providing food, housing and services for the working poor or jobless.
How do you convince someone of the necessity of protecting the environment when people are suffering? That’s a question that Kate Parkerson, development director for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, has to answer.
“Finding ways to help communities get through these times is very important but preserving natural resources in rural counties is a way to ensure that they continue to support themselves,” Parkerson said.
Parkerson said environmental causes always represent the smallest slice of the philanthropic pie, but the current economic climate has squeezed their resources from two directions.
“Foundations and state funding have been cut, so the Catch2222 is that you rely more on private donors at a time when they are stretched,” Parkerson said.
Parkerson said LTLT has been fortunate with its private donations this year, but even after cutting its budget by 20 percent, the organization is looking at starting next year in the red.
LTLT received over $1 million from a scenic byway grant to protect the Wood Family Farm in Andrews, but the money hinges on their ability to match it at 30 percent.
Parkerson said in today’s fundraising environment, it pays to have a clear message.
“Clean water, healthy forests, productive farmlands are the basic things that support rural economies. If these things are healthy, the people have a way of supporting themselves,” Parkerson said.
Another hit to environmental initiatives is waning support from state and local government, according to George Ivey, a grant writer and project manager for nonprofits.
Haywood County ceased even nominal contributions to nonprofits, including local environmental groups. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped state froze and even robbed trust funds designated for land conservation. That impacted Ivey’s work with Haywood County tobacco farmers looking for new crops that would make farming viable again, which in turn would preserve the agricultural landscape.
“There simply wasn’t as much grant money to go around to help farmers trying to transition away from tobacco. That money definitely seemed to dry up,” said Ivey, who lives in Haywood County.
Corporate donations were down as well, given the troubled economic times.
“When they are laying off staff, it is difficult for them to make a sizeable donation. There was a definitive drop-off there,” said Ivey, who often courts large corporations and corporate foundations to support environmental initiatives.
Ivey said some funders recognized the hard times environmental groups were facing and increased their giving. But environmental groups had to write better proposals and be more judicious about which projects to pursue, judging the effectiveness of each and weighing how well they fit their mission. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The best projects would still rise to the top and get funded over the ones that weren’t as well thought out or seemed redundant,” Ivey said.
An easy area to scale back was special events that gained public awareness for a group’s mission and built support for their work, but didn’t net a return, like fundraising dinners.
Another side effect is that environmental groups collaborated more. Sometimes groups with overlapping missions ended up working together at the request of donors themselves.
“They said maybe y’all need to talk together or work together better,” Ivey said.
Some environmental groups simply couldn’t maintain the staff they once had. The National Parks Conservation Association shut down a field office in Asheville and laid off a staff person who worked to protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway.
But the news isn’t all bad. Houk Medford, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, said his organization is doing better than it did last year.
The foundation serves as a fundraising entity for the National Park Service’s work to maintain and improve the land bordering the parkway.
“I think the support is a reflection of the strong interest people have in the Blue Ridge Parkway because for a lot of people it’s the national park in their backyard,” Medford said.
Medford said they key to fundraising for environmental causes is to realize that the preserving natural resources is work that looks to the future.
“The message has to be future-based with a present moment sense of urgency,” Medford said.