by Carly Flandro, Chronicle Staff Writer
In the realm of green groups, there are no widgets for sale.
Donors receive no bells or whistles to take home and show for their money. There are only ideas, projects, promises of action, a hope and a cause.
Still, that’s enough for the millions of individuals and foundations that invest in nonprofit conservation groups every year — the everyday people, the famous and affluent, the candy-bar and automobile companies, the rock stars and media tycoons.
These cherished donors and their greenbacks are the lifeblood of almost every environmental group.
But donations are never certain and often waver, sometimes swelling or collapsing to decide a group’s fate. That pressure – coupled with the increasing competition for grants and donations – has taught today’s conservation groups to scrape for every dollar they can.
Green nonprofits work hard to court donors while maintaining their integrity. Yet the fight for conservation is also a constant fight for cash.
Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and Mike Mease, cofounder of Buffalo Field Campaign, an environmental advocacy group, have one thing in common: The University of Montana.
Ament and Mease attended UM at around the same time in the early 1980s, a simple connection that was enough for Pearl Jam to become a BFC donor.
But Pearl Jam isn’t the only well-known act to give to the group. BFC boasts an all-star donor list that includes Michael Franti, the Indigo Girls, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills and Nash, Built to Spill, and Bonnie Raitt.
“They come to us,” Mease said. “They hear of our work. … This is a handful of artists who stand up for what they believe in.”
The BFC also had a little help getting the rockers’ attention, though. The Guacamole Fund, a nonprofit group that links rock stars to causes, has set up many of its donors.
The fund simply “chose our group,” Mease said.
Good connections and luck helped the Buffalo Field Campaign to land those big-name donors, which is often the case when there’s fame behind a cause.
In June 2010, Michael Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, got word he needed to fly to Boston. James Taylor and Carole King had something for him.
He did as told and, onstage, was given a check for $326,000. It was the largest single amount the group had ever received.
Taylor and King were doing a 40-concert tour together and had decided to give AWR some of the proceeds. Garrity said the group didn’t even ask for help; King — a former AWR board member and Idaho resident — just decided to do it.
“We essentially don’t spend time asking people for money,” Garrity said. “We focus our energy and money on protecting habitat and wildlife. I think that’s why people like us.”
And then there’s Ted Turner, one of the most well-known and wealthy givers in the area. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition has been a recipient of his generosity for the past 20 years or so. For at least the past decade, that’s meant an annual $100,000 gift.
Turner’s interest in the group began in the 1980s, when he bought the 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch, according to Ed Lewis, one of GYC’s first directors.
“(Turner) started being more interested in the Yellowstone region because he was out here and he loved the place,” Lewis said. “He’s always been a strong conservationist.”
Turner invited Lewis to his ranch to talk about what GYC was doing. He was impressed enough to join the GYC board of directors — and begin writing those coveted checks.
However, big-dollar donors are more the exception than the rule when it comes to fundraising. Most groups rely on more traditional means such as holding dinners, lectures or fundraisers to attract potential new donors.
“Remember why you live here?” was the opening line on the Gateway Opencut Mining Action Group’s invitation to a recent fundraiser. A photo of sunlight-graced mountain peaks framed the words. “Help us preserve that reason for our future generations.”
It’s one of many pitches for donations that are circulated throughout the year. Trout Unlimited makes an effort every year to keep previous donors interested by inviting them on outings such as a fishing trip on the Madison River.
In their efforts, green groups essentially target three types of donors: members, foundations and individuals.
Members are the average Joes and Josephines who pay $30 to $40 a year to support the organization because they believe in the mission.
Foundations, groups established to dole out money on behalf of a group or individual, tend to appropriate larger sums, require applications and sometimes stipulate that the receiving group follow certain guidelines.
Individuals are donors who give away their own money, and usually much more than a typical member does.
Tim Crawford falls into that latter category. A California native, he lives on a small ranch between Belgrade and Manhattan called Pheasant Farms. Crawford worked for years as a photographer and describes himself as “semi-retired.”
He donates to about a half-dozen local green groups, pulling from his personal checking account.
“It makes you feel that you’re doing something significant,” he said. “The whole point is if you’re in a fortunate enough position to be able to donate … then I think it’s a wise thing to do and a very gratifying thing to do.”
Groups he has donated to include the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Keystone Conservation, among others.
He said deciding which groups to give to is “a very personal decision,” and added that he gives away about the same amount each year.
Getting the attention of someone like Crawford, Pearl Jam or Carole King is not always possible. Besides, there are a limited number of such donors. Given the steady increase in the number of green groups in Bozeman over the years, it’s gotten to be a fierce fight for funds.
There are at least 24 green groups in town. Mike Clark, GYC’s executive director, claims there are more conservation workers per capita here than anywhere else.
“The competition is just a fact of life,” he said. “We’re all supported by the public and by wealthy people with causes.”
Lisa Upson, the executive director for Keystone Conservation, said that just means organizations have to be innovative in their work to find funding and keep it.
“It’s not a nasty competition,” she said. “We’re just all looking to many of the same pools.”
Because of that, some groups are secretive about their donors and how they find them.
For example, Laura Ziemer, director of Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project, would not name the groups that give specifically to TU in Montana.
“It’s a very competitive fundraising world in the Bozeman nonprofit community, so I’m hesitant to name the foundations,” she said.
Beholden to donors?
In addition to competition for dollars, there is competition for unencumbered money.
In a perfect world, money would flow to organizations that do good work – no strings attached. But the truth is that some money does come with stipulations. And working with big-dollar donors who also pursue environmental activism on their own can create the appearance of compromise.
Mease bragged that 60 to 65 percent of the Buffalo Field Campaign’s annual income comes from individuals writing a check for less than $50 – an equation that helps the organization maintain its independence and allows him to say it is “supported by the people.”
“That gives us a strength. We don’t have to do anything to receive our money,” he said. “We don’t have to jump through hoops and perform certain things.”
Garrity, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said groups with big donors seem to have more pressure riding on their decisions. As an example, he cited a recent court settlement over gray wolves, in which 10 environmental groups compromised with the U.S. Department of Interior to find a wolf-management solution.
On the contrary, Clark said. GYC was one group that partook in the settlement, and it made the move knowing full well that it would anger some donors.
“Some members will be disappointed and drop away,” he said. “That’s OK. People can vote with their money or time.”
In the past few days, Clark said his email has been flooded with messages from people criticizing the decision to settle.
GYC’s been through this before, though. Last year, it was criticized for supporting a controversial arrangement between Turner and federal agencies that called for temporarily placing more than 80 wild bison from Yellowstone National Park on Turner’s Green Ranch.
The animals were part of an experimental quarantine program and needed a new home. When all the other options fell through, the bison faced slaughter if rangeland could not be found. That’s when Turner made his offer. In exchange, he will get to keep 75 percent of the bison’s offspring.
Many bison advocates decried the deal as “privatizing wildlife.” GYC supported Turner – but Clark said it was not done as a favor to Turner.
“It was just the opposite,” he said. “We urged Ted to get involved and he didn’t want to because it would be so controversial. But when it was clear that there were no other options, he reluctantly agreed.”
Clark said GYC had no role in arranging for Turner to keep some of the calves, but it seemed like “a fair deal.”
To some extent, “money always influences what people do,” Clark acknowledged. But he maintains GYC has rejected donations with strings attached. And it doesn’t accept government money.
“We don’t want (the government) to tell us what to do,” he said. “We’re an advocacy group. We want the government to do what we want. We’ll always be independent.”
Other groups like Trout Unlimited don’t see a problem accepting funds from government agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management.
“I would say that we very much go out of our way to collaborate with both state and federal agencies,” Ziemer said. “We move the ball forward quite a bit by making sure we collaborate with them. … They have such pervasive management authorities and stewardship responsibilities that it would limit our work not to.”
TU works closely with the Forest Service to conduct stream-flow studies, for example. Then, if TU discovers fish-passage barriers in national forests, the agency works with it to remove them.
But that doesn’t keep TU from occasionally working to change government policy, Ziemer said.
Survival of the fittest
Southwest Montana is a region known for its natural beauty and resources. It holds gateways to the world’s first national park, blue-ribbon trout streams, national forests, protected mountain ranges and endangered wildlife species.
Conservationists are drawn to the region, joining or starting organizations to protect the wildlife and public lands. But in the crowded arena, survival of any group depends on attracting and maintaining donations.
That means sometimes refusing money with strings attached, even on a tight budget. It means competing with friends and former coworkers for limited funds. And those in the environmental sector know that sometimes it means saying goodbye.
GYC’s Clark said he respects that so many people want to work on conservation, but with limited funding available, some groups might have to merge or cease altogether.
“We’ve already seen that in the Bozeman nonprofit community,” Ziemer said, citing the recent closure of the Bozeman-based American Wildlands after 30 years.
It seems that while pushing for preservation of wildlife and landscape, some green groups are unable to protect themselves.
But for better or worse, it means environmental groups have learned how to fight for both causes and dollars.