Water groups focus on fundraising

Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Neuse River Foundation in Raleigh counts on fees from its 3,000 members, along with support from foundations and individuals, to cover the $787,000 annual cost of its operations and programs to monitor the river and advocate for its protection.

Now, the group will get a fundraising boost through an initiative to support a “rainmaker” fellow for three years at each of six water-conservation organizations throughout North Carolina.

“Riverkeeper” groups, as they are known, often operate “hand-to-mouth,” says Elaine Whitford, director of development at the Neuse River Foundation. “We have a cushion, but not a very large cushion.”

A three-year, $841,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem to the Raleigh-based North Carolina Conservation Network will cover the first-year’s salaries for the six rainmaker fellows, and a declining share of their salaries for each of the next two years.

The grant also will support training for the fellows, and half the cost of fundraising support services for the six groups, says Heather Yandow, director of development and communications for the Conservation Network.

The rainmaker initiative builds on the work of the Conservation Network, which was formed in 1998 to strengthen and coordinate North Carolina’s environmental community.

With 120 affiliates throughout the state, the network distributes information, including a daily news digest that summarizes the work of 30 media sources, and a weekly legislative update published when state lawmaker are in session.

With a $700,000 annual budget and a staff of nine people, the network also coordinates the work of three coalitions that focus, respectively, on water, on climate and energy, and on legislative advocacy.

And the network operates a “Public Alert” system that uses a twice-a-week email to notify 9,000 people throughout the state about key environmental issues and to give them information about how to contact lawmakers or other state officials.

The eight-year-old water coalition, known as the Watershed Alliance, has 25 member organizations, is the oldest of the network’s coalitions, and has been looking in recent years for ways to strengthen its work.

Grassroots fundraising and constituency-building will be the focus of the six rainmaker fellows supported by the Reynolds grant.

The six groups aim to recruit new members, new individual donors who give in addition to their membership fees, and new major donors.

Each of the six groups will receive 40 hours a year of consulting coordinated by the Conservation Network, which also will provide funds from the Reynolds grant to pay half the cost of joint projects to benefit the six water-conservation groups, with groups participating in the projects responsible for their share of the remaining half of the cost.

The initial project will be exploring how the six groups might share donor-database software.

“Watershed organizations have a lot of potential to attract new members in the community,” says Yandow, “and this project is giving them the capacity to reach out to those folks.”

Whitford says the Neuse River Foundation aims with the help of its rainmaker fellow to increase its membership of 3,000 by half, and to double, to 80, the number of donors making “major” gifts of $500 or more.

Because memberships drive its revenue, she says, the organization must work continually to renew memberships, find new members and cultivate existing members, jobs that will be the focus of its rainmaker fellow.

The rainmaker project is “a unique solution to the problem of getting nonprofits stabilized,” Whitford says, and should serve as a model that “can apply in any nonprofit with any type of mission.”

Other groups participating in the rainmaker project include Cape Fear River Watch in Wilmington; Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in Charlotte; Haw River Assembly in Bynum; New River Foundation in Jacksonville; and Pamlico-Tar River Foundation in Washington, N.C.

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