Making the Case for Conservation: Fundraising for Our Future

Eighteen years ago, a group of concerned community members organized a collaborative effort to save a coastal area from becoming a private resort. They successfully saved what is now known as the Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge. Today, the 277-acre Refuge is critical native plant and wildlife habitat, a nature preserve where families recreate and recharge, an outdoor classroom to thousands of local students annually, and a sanctuary to several heiau. Upon visiting the Refuge, the specialness of the place can be physically felt.  The loi kalo ia here produced enough taro and fish to feed thousands. Queen Kaahumanu was known to visit here, as her parents lived here for a time. King Kamehameha the Great, with Liholiho, reconsecrated the Kealakaihonua heiau here, an act that fortified the strength of his kingdom. Off the coast, the extensive reef is one of the longest and widest on Maui. If one were to pause to reflect on the area’s history, one might wonder if that specialness would have been as palpable if the Refuge had become a private luxury resort. If the wetlands had been replaced by tennis courts and swimming pools, and the goddess Haumea’s sacred dunes bulldozed for hotel rooms, restaurants, and spas, would we still feel the magic of the land?

The group of people that organized to save Waihee Refuge, who became the Maui Coastal Land Trust (who later merged with neighbor island land trusts to become HILT) and the extended community that supported their efforts were reacting to an immediate threat to a beloved place. They may not have known it at the time, but these actions had lasting impacts that united people in an effort to preserve land in perpetuity. Communities will be benefit from their actions long after you and I are gone. These people were visionary.

However, the reason Waihee is what it is today is due to the sustained support of the community over the last eighteen years. They may have initially responded to the call of an immediate threat, but their determination remained long after Waihee was saved.

There are few causes you can support where the actions you take will benefit people today as well as decades or centuries from now. Environmental causes, specifically land trusts, are among those making the promise of perpetuity.

Beyond the obvious health benefits of clean water and clean air, support for environmental causes can provide additional benefits such as improved mental health, lower crime, and a stronger economy. And yet, government, foundation, and individual support for the environment and climate change adaptation are still achingly low. Generational shifts in giving and increased awareness of human impact and damage, are making environmental causes the fastest growing nonprofit sector in the United States. However, environmental nonprofits are among the lowest funded charitable causes, receiving just 3% of all giving.

Islands in the Pacific are at the highest risk for climate change related devastation. Flooding, erosion, stronger and increased storm activity, and hotter relative temperatures are all things that we, in Hawaii, are seeing and feeling right now. In 2018, we saw the people of Hawaii come together quickly and generously to help those suffering from a number of environmental disasters. Lava flows and flooding destroyed homes and displaced entire communities.

But when the message is not as urgent, the need not as immediate, when the call to action is to prepare beyond today, how do we respond? Environmental nonprofits have a difficult task in helping donors feel the same present urgency for protecting habitat and cultural land as they do when disaster strikes.

Considering the role of the nonprofit in making the case for support: are we communicating the right message in the way to the right people?

For the most part, fundraisers divide themselves into two methods of messaging. The first maintains that we should use the natural human instinct for loss aversion, or the tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains, to our advantage. The theory is that funding will increase if we successfully use facts and evidence to communicate what specifically will be lost if support for environmental causes isn’t given.

The second method uses another aspect of human psychology: The Ostrich Effect. This term refers to people’s tendencies to avoid difficult situations or bad news. In theory, if talking about facts and threats makes donors want to run in the opposite direction, we should make a case for support that highlights opportunity, solutions, and preparedness.

You may recognize both of these tactics. A variety of nonprofits use them, not just environmental causes. I have used them myself, here with HILT in letters to donors or in creating our annual appeal. I am challenged daily with how to effectively convey the urgency and necessity of what we do, the continuing need for support, and the incredible impacts and successes we’ve had, without diminishing the severity of the challenges we face.

Thankfully, HILT has a base of donors who have seen the impact and value of the work we do (possibly many of you reading this right now) who faithfully and generously support us every year. However, if we are to do more, and if we are going to continue our work over the next 10, 20, or 100 or more years, we must continually attract new donors. New donors who, similar to that visionary group of people who came together to save Waihee, understand that our futures and our way of life are inexorably tied to our environment and the need to take and sustain action now so our children will have a better future. Let's reach out and empower the next generation of Waihee visionaries.

— Angela Britten

What kinds of messages do you respond to? Take this fun quiz to find out!