Big Names & Campaigns

“We’ve got until Earth Day to purchase the property,” said Katie Blake as we hiked along a rolling path dappled by sunlight in a pristine woodland north of Victoria. Birdsong, sunbursts and wafts of arboreal decay filled the air. “You see, this beautiful forest is the subject of an active real estate listing and at least one developer is waiting in the wings.”

As director of Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT), Katie knows only too well how rarely an opportunity like Mountain Road Forest comes along: to convert a private lot into an urban forest. The family who owned the 49-acre property had left it untouched for 50 years. The result was a vast and verdant natural cathedral. They hope it can remain that way, but economic pressures have forced them to put the property on the market. If HAT can raise $1.4 million by April 22, 2021, the Capitol Regional District (CRD) will permanently designate the forest as a park.

While the forest contains a few simple trails, other human impact, such as invasive species, is minimal. The local community recognizes and cherishes the invaluable ecological and recreational roles this land plays in their lives. Many people walk and tend do the trails, and care for this place in their own way. It is a deeply loved piece of land and the community is rallying behind its protection. So far more than 850 individuals in and around Victoria have contributed a half a million dollars towards this goal.

The Mountain Road property is a magnificent example of mature second growth Coastal Douglas-fir forests, along with Garry oak meadow, rock outcrop, and arbutus stands, all of which are some of Canada’s most rare and imperilled
ecosystems. The property contains pockets of old growth trees, and as old growth forests disappear, preserving these mature second growth forests will be key to renewing old forests over time. A spring-fed stream that transects the property is part of the headwaters of the Colquitz River system. Species at risk such as Western Screech-Owl and Common Night hawk range on the property. As development pressures on southeast Vancouver Island grow, opportunities to save large areas of these threatened forests are disappearing. This is an important chance to save some of the best of what’s left.

My consultancy Blue Gorilla Giving was engaged in the latter phase of HAT‘s campaign. Believing the cause would resonate with her, I contacted actress and environmentalist Daryl Hannah, with whom I’d tracked mountain gorillas in Rwanda in 2016, and asked if she might lend her name to the Mountain Road Forest campaign. I also sent a link to a short video (below). Imagine my surprise when, a day later, she sent an appeal letter that she’d written for the campaign with her husband, legendary musician Neil Young. They then donated a gift of $25,000.

An endorsement from a well known personality has enormous leveraging power in fundraising. In careful hands, it may be used to great effect as a means to raising major gifts from individuals and corporations. Adding authenticity to Daryl and Neil‘s endorsement is that they wrote the letter without prompting and then followed it up with a generous donation. Clearly the three-minute video I sent had struck a chord. Often it’s something so simple that motivates a potential donor, and for people who are regularly approached, the simpler the ask the better.

When I began fundraising for mountain gorillas in 1992, I found it relatively easy to attract patrons. It was a compelling cause. Who wouldn’t want to save these big, charismatic mammals from extinction? Having said that, the cause for which I’d previously fundraised, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, had also proved compelling. Many celebrities, especially musicians, had personally experienced the problem. I even found one who was prepared to support both causes: Ringo Starr. But that’s a rare thing. Never assume that supporters of one cause are transferable to another.

Be authentic. Be yourself. Communicate with your prospect on equal terms. Charitable patronage is a two-way street. Don’t get too officious. Fame prefers rounded edges to sharp corners. But don’t hold back either. Be truthful.

I admit that I came into the profession with some contacts of my own, such as Arthur C. Clarke. So is it only a matter of who you know? No. Once I simply copied the names off a Forbes’ list of the world’s rich and famous, and cold-mailed as many for whom as I could find contacts an urgent appeal: war in Congo was threatening the gorillas. Lo and behold, Leonardo DiCaprio responded with a personal check for $25,000. I invited him to become a patron. A year later he joined Arthur C. Clarke for an online event – Leonardo in Hollywood; Arthur in Colombo – hosted by Yahoo. We hoped to raise awareness of the threat to gorilla habitats of mining coltan, a mineral used in electronics. Scheduled six months in advance, we could not have foreseen that our online event would take place ten days after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Sometimes, even if you’ve got the biggest names in the world behind your public relations gambit, it can still fail to capture an audience.

Remember, fundraising is a people skill based on relationships. Even the most mundane aspects of the trade involve people. And people are motivated by stories. It’s easy to forget, when filling out yet another online application on deadline day, that there’s a living breathing person at the other end of that faceless grant-making machine. Find a way to include a brief yet compelling story in your app. And, if you have some well known supporters, don’t be afraid to name drop. Celebrities are celebrated, especially when it comes to causes.

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