Finding the Resources: Confronting the Fundraising Challenge

By David Godfrey, Neca Marcovaldi, Guy Marcovaldi, Amanda Gibson, Morrison Mast, and Wallace J. Nichols

Money alone does not make conservation happen, but it is a necessary ingredient, and acquiring it can be one of our greatest challenges as conservationists. Among government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and individuals seeking to affect conservation practices, the most often cited obstacle to those efforts is the lack of resources. This obstacle can mean a shortage of labor, expertise, or even political will, but these all bring us back to money. People must be paid, and volunteers need to eat and be housed; expertise requires training and practice; and lobbyists cannot affect political will without financial fuel. Community organizations and nonprofit groups on the front lines of conservation must spend a significant portion of their time focused on fundraising.

Of the many techniques used by nonprofit groups to support their work, preparing proposals for grant funding is an important and reliable way to raise money. Yet other types of fundraising ideas are evolving faster than bacteria in this era of personal engagement, online payment, and 24/7 Internet access. Following the description of grant funding are several fundraising initiatives of the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC, formerly Caribbean Conservation Corporation); Projeto TAMAR, a leader in conserving Brazil’s sea turtles for 30 years; and others. They are presented as a source of inspiration and guidance to others seeking to finance their conservation work.

Grant funding applications

In the United States alone, thousands of registered private foundations award grant funding for nearly every type of cause imaginable. Therefore, everyone working in the field of sea turtle research and conservation should have a basic understanding of how to prepare and submit grant proposals to private foundations. Numerous reliable sources of information are available for researching foundations, and many also provide training and other resources to help teach people the art of grant writing. Many organizations provide their resources and databases for free, and others charge modest subscription fees. Some of the best ones to check out include GrantStation.com, FoundationCenter.org, and FoundationSearch.com. Dozens of federal, state, and local government sources are available as well, along with multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations, and Asian and African Development banks, to name a few.

Sea turtle specialty license plates

Many U.S. states issue specialty license plates that can be purchased voluntarily by vehicle owners for an additional fee. The revenue generated by sales of these plates is typically earmarked for specific charitable purposes or for support of different kinds of state programs. In 1995, STC led a successful campaign to establish Florida’s sea turtle specialty license plate. Since its release, the sea turtle plate has become the second-highest-selling specialty tag in Florida and now generates over $1.5 million annually. Seventy percent of Florida’s turtle tag revenue is earmarked for the state’s Marine Turtle Protection Program, which carries out regulatory, research, and enforcement functions within the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. The remaining 30 percent of revenue is disbursed to STC for distribution through the Sea Turtle Grants Program, which provides competitive grants supporting sea turtle research, conservation, and education projects benefiting sea turtles that nest on Florida’s beaches. In the years since Florida established the sea turtle plate, several other states, including both of the Carolinas and Georgia, have issued sea turtle tags that now generate revenue supporting conservation. Specialty license plates could be an untapped opportunity for fundraising in other countries also.

Sales of sea turtle specialty license plates, such as this one from Florida, U.S.A., are one creative way to generate funding for conservation programs.

Sales of sea turtle specialty license plates, such as this one from Florida, U.S.A., are one creative way to generate funding for conservation programs.

Paying volunteer programs

STC’s long-term green turtle monitoring program at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, was one of the first biological research projects anywhere to begin raising funds by inviting paying eco-volunteers to assist with the program. Today, dozens of sea turtle groups around the world advertise paid, hands-on volunteer programs as a method of securing additional funds for their work. These programs have the benefit of raising money while also attracting eager volunteers to assist with project work. In the process, such programs typically help cultivate lifelong sea turtle advocates and supporters. In the case of STC, several of the organization’s largest individual donors and many of its recent board members were first introduced to the group through the Tortuguero Research Participant Program.

Volunteer programs require a large commitment of staff time to manage, promote, and oversee operations, and there is a certain amount of liability associated with including laypersons in your research, but if your group has adequate staffing and facilities to organize a paid volunteer program, this can be an important source of revenue. However, it is critical to ensure that the process of including volunteers and meeting their expectations does not interfere with the main purpose of a research project. Volunteers must be fully informed about the physical challenges of any work they will be doing, and they should understand and be prepared for the kinds of facilities and meals that will be provided, especially when accommodations are very rustic. Finally, all volunteers should be required to acknowledge, in writing, that they understand all risks associated with the volunteer program and release the sponsoring organization from all liability. Any group wishing to start a volunteer program should get advice from other groups that are already providing such programs.

Spectators and corporate sponsors gather at the starting line of Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles. The campaign recruited corporate turtle sponsors to fund satellite tracking research and to generate public awareness for conservation. © Sea Turtle Conservancy

Spectators and corporate sponsors gather at the starting line of Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles. The campaign recruited corporate turtle sponsors to fund satellite tracking research and to generate public awareness for conservation. © Sea Turtle Conservancy

Special events

Groups can organize an endless variety of special events as a way to raise money. Examples include holding parties or benefit concerts to which people buy tickets. It is also common at such events to hold either a silent or live auction of donated merchandise. The key to making a profit with such events is to get as many of the costs donated as possible, including the labor needed to put on the actual event. For example, it is often possible to find a free venue; musicians will sometimes perform for free; local businesses will donate items used in charitable auctions; local radio or television stations will provide free public service announcements about an event; and even caterers and beverage providers will sometimes donate food or offer greatly reduced rates. The more money you can save at the outset, the more you can earn at the end. Other types of successful fundraising events include charitable fun runs, golf tournaments, or black-tie dinners or galas. One thing to remember about special events is that they can be incredibly labor intensive, and they often do not make money in the first year. When an event is hosted annually, participation can grow and sponsorship can increase as an event matures over time. Another approach is to consider attaching your organization to an existing event or concert to help boost attendance, thus raising funds without the logistical responsibilities.

Adopt-an-animal and animal sponsorships

Private donors often like to have a personal connection to their charitable giving, and “adopt-an-animal” campaigns are an effective way to deliver this needed connection. STC, Seaturtle.org, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Sea Turtle Hospital, and many other groups in the United States and abroad have ongoing adopt-a-turtle programs. The oldest nonprofit group dedicated to ocean conservation, Oceanic Society, has run adoption programs for whales, dolphins, turtles, and even atolls for decades. These campaigns, originally done by mail, are perfect for online donors, because the Internet provides a low-cost way to keep donors directly engaged through stories and updates about their adopted animals.

An interesting spin on the adoption technique is that of obtaining corporate sponsorships for individual animals, such as that undertaken in the Great Turtle Race, an effort spearheaded by a consortium of nonprofit, university, and corporate partners in the late 2000s. These online entertainment and outreach campaigns used actual leatherback satellite tracking data to create two-week-long online transoceanic races between turtles sponsored by companies (e.g., Yahoo), schools (e.g., Drexel University), and rock bands (e.g., Pearl Jam). The turtles were given names like Backspacer, Stephanie Colburtle, and Purple Lightning and were even assigned Olympic swimmer coaches. The races served as the backdrop for blogs, news stories, and press conferences and advertising campaigns designed to engage viewers, demonstrate corporate commitment to conservation, educate the public about sea turtle and ocean conservation, and of course raise money. Variations on the Great Turtle Race are still active today, including the Great Canadian Turtle Race (Canadian Sea Turtle Network) and STC’s Tour de Turtles.

Corporate partnerships

Corporate partnerships can be among the easiest and the toughest ways to raise money in support of sea turtle conservation. The only truly easy case is when a corporation decides on its own to do something for sea turtles and contacts your group or institution to offer financial support. However, accepting such support must be weighed carefully after considering whether the partnership poses any potential risks by association. For example, a charitable cancer group in the United States was criticized harshly for setting up a partnership with a fast-food chain that produces fatty fried foods that have been linked to various health problems. Before accepting corporate support, an organization should consider the nature of the business and whether there is any aspect of the relationship that the group either cannot or chooses not to have to defend against outside criticism.

If implemented correctly, corporate partnerships can be very important sources of funding for sea turtle research and conservation. For example, STC recently formed a partnership with a spirits manufacturer that had launched a Caribbean-made, turtle-themed rum (Naked Turtle Rum). This partnership is expected to generate recurring revenue for years to come. Endangered Species Chocolates dedicates a full 10 percent of profits to conservation groups, including SEEturtles.org. The new Billion Baby Turtles campaign launched by SEEturtles.org is raising funds for community-based sea turtle protection projects around the world by partnering with small businesses that agree to build the cost of protecting a hatchling into their sales. CauseBars.com soap is an example of a sustainable organic product whose sales generate cash for conservation. Other turtle groups have formed partnerships with companies such as The Body Shop and Ocean Spray Juices. A wide variety of companies might be inclined to support sea turtle conservation. The challenge is finding the right person to whom you can present your idea and convincing them that the partnership can be mutually beneficial.

A local community craft group creates handmade t-shirts that will be sold in stores run by Projeto TAMAR. TAMAR’s innovative retail program supports community employment and funds conservation programs in coastal communities throughout northern Brazil. © Projeto TAMAR Image Bank

A local community craft group creates handmade t-shirts that will be sold in stores run by Projeto TAMAR. TAMAR’s innovative retail program supports community employment and funds conservation programs in coastal communities throughout northern Brazil. © Projeto TAMAR Image Bank

Crowd-funding

Crowd-sourced fundraising, or crowd-funding, is catching on not only as a way to raise money for conservation projects, but also as a way to achieve outreach and education goals. Most people use online crowd-funding as a way to find small amounts of financial support for individual, one-off efforts, such as paying for satellite transmitters, making a documentary film, or sourcing specific small projects; however, the awareness generated through this type of public engagement potentially can yield valuable long-term commitments well beyond the value of the dollars raised. Websites specializing in this type of crowd-sourced fundraising have sprung up in recent years, the most popular being Kickstarter.com (geared toward creative projects) and Indiegogo.com (designed for independent artists and nonprofit organizations). For instance, the Return of the Black Turtle photo documentary project recently used crowd-sourced funding through Emphas.is to cover an emerging sea turtle conservation success story in the eastern Pacific. The funds allowed photographer Neil Osborne to travel to key locations and events related to black turtle conservation.

A member of the Campillo family musical group coaches the next generation in playing the kammu purwi, a Guna instrument fashioned from reeds. By producing and selling online the first album of Guna folkloric music, social entrepreneurs raised funds for sea turtle conservation while helping preserve the musical traditions of Panama’s Guna Indians. © Morrison B. Mast

A member of the Campillo family musical group coaches the next generation in playing the kammu purwi, a Guna instrument fashioned from reeds. By producing and selling online the first album of Guna folkloric music, social entrepreneurs raised funds for sea turtle conservation while helping preserve the musical traditions of Panama’s Guna Indians. © Morrison B. Mast

Social entrepreneurs Amanda Gibson and Morrison Mast recently launched a campaign at Indiegogo.com designed to support sea turtle conservation through the establishment of a SWOT minimum data standards project in the small Panamanian village of Armila, site of a large leatherback nesting population. As one of the most traditional Guna Indian villages in the country, Armila still forbids the exploitation of this potential source of protein, but heavy Western influences are taking their toll on the culture and on the Guna’s harmonious relationship with leatherbacks. The pair of entrepreneurs collaborated with SWOT, Ocean Revolution, and a local folkloric music group, Gammibe Gun Galu, to record, produce, design, print, and distribute the first-ever album of Guna music. The funds generated by online sales will help jumpstart some of Armila’s conservation and sustainable development efforts. Moreover, it is hoped that the global sharing of Guna music will contribute to both local pride and ongoing interest in and support for Guna culture, which has a special reverence for nature, especially sea turtles. Mechanisms have been built into the campaign to ensure long-term sustainability of project funding.

One-off campaigns are common, but microphilanthropy and crowd-funding also can be used to recruit recurring donors who provide long-term monthly contributions to a project. One example is 100BlueAngels.org, established by Wallace J. Nichols as a source of support to pay the recurring costs of his work to conserve sea turtles and to make the oceans healthier and safer by collaborating with coastal communities and grassroots organizations around the world. This revenue allows him to remain an independent scientist, advocate, and communicator in a time when new ideas and the freedom to express them are sorely needed.

Crowd-funding isn’t necessarily a stand-alone, long-term solution to fulfilling large budget needs, but when seen in conjunction with all other aspects of building a strong ocean conservation movement and used alongside social media, it is an approach that is here to stay.

T-shirts to the rescue

Following the prohibition of Brazil’s extractive sea turtle industry, Projeto TAMAR did not leave affected communities to fend for themselves. Instead, the Brazilian conservation organization created the social production chain, in which TAMAR t-shirts and souvenirs are manufactured in coastal communities. The production chain uses local raw materials from start to finish, thus providing former turtle harvesters with jobs and alternative sources of incomes at a variety of levels. With many donor and public organizations seeking to tap into the private sector’s capacity for sustainable and scalable projects, Projeto TAMAR already has the business side figured out as well. The production chain, developed over many years, also includes tourism activities and retail sale points throughout the country. It sustains over 1,200 jobs and alleviates unsustainable pressure on Brazil’s nesting sea turtles. Between 30 and 50 percent of the nonprofit organization’s annual revenues are generated by the retail sale of these items in TAMAR-managed visitor centers and strategically located shops, which help to educate over 1.5 million tourists every year about sea turtle conservation.

The sum of fundraising success

Never before have the citizens of the world been more conservation-aware, more concerned about the planet, and more charitable. Although fundraising may seem like a daunting task, it can also be fun and rewarding. Success in fundraising for conservation will come from pursuing traditional values—hard work and persistence—but superlative rewards will be reaped by those demonstrating the greatest ingenuity, creativity, and tenacity.