An intensive review of past funding and future needs for financing the work of a mid-sized lands conservancy caused me to rethink the long term fiscal realities of funding some critical aspects of nonprofit land practice.
Background: Previous to discussions with the lands conservancy at issue in this post, I had held executive responsibility (and raised funding) for government agencies and nonprofit organizations that developed, purchased, held, and managed many large conservation land reserves and that funded purchase of protective conservation easements. Easements maintain or restrict certain property uses in perpetuity, or for a specific term, for example to preserve or restore particular agricultural purposes or for conservation of the ecology, water quality, and other natural lands features.
This background steered a lands conservancy board and their consultant to me. In the course of discussing funding and operating the lands conservancy I learned just how tricky managing a natural lands protection organization in some locations can become.
Is your lands conservancy positioned to forever receive adequate funding to operate and pay staff, plus fund forever the maintenance needs of your purchased lands and easements – forever for whatever may arise?
This lands conservancy had developed a model to estimate the projected expense of managing a protected area in perpetuity. The model was used to factor numerous predicted long-term and occasional expenses together. The end result was a calculated estimate of the amount of money the organization had to raise during the course of the lands acquisition to set aside to endow perpetual maintenance of the property or perpetual oversight of an easement.
The lands conservancy had acquired numerous properties across a large and growing region. Several of the properties were located in rapidly urbanizing areas where suburban development already was beginning to surround, or already had, the organization’s natural lands reserves.
Despite best efforts and a special model to forecast future costs and set funding requirements for perpetual maintenance, this organization was rapidly descending into financial jeopardy. The reason was that the actual costs of lands maintenance in the urbanizing areas far exceeded projections. The organization simply had not raised and reserved adequate funding for perpetual maintenance of the lands. Had the environment surrounding the protected areas remained as it had at the time the lands were acquired, the organization may have avoided financial distress so soon. But surroundings did change. Subdivisions were built. Nearby urban areas grew. Homes and new neighborhoods soon engulfed some of the organization’s natural areas. As people moved in nearby, costs of maintaining the natural areas skyrocketed as fencing, property management, neighbor relations, fire prevention and control, habitat protection, 24-hour security, occasional policing needs, and more overwhelmed anticipated maintenance requirements.
At the time of these discussions, I was working for a large conservation organization that included land conservation as a part of its mission. The part of the organization I was helping lead focused its lands protection practice on creating partnerships to acquire lands or easements. We excelled at cobbling together funding from multiple partners to acquire the land or easement. Once the land or an easement was secured by the partners, long-term management of the properties was usually handed over to a lands conservancy organization that specialized in perpetual management of lands. My team focused more on scientific and engineering support, including delivery of expertise to restore the ecological functions of newly protected areas, obtain needed permits, and develop management plans. We raised funding for such purposes, but once the acquisition was completed and the ecology of a site restored, we were finished. The mission of environmental restoration and future preservation was accomplished, and we moved on. Perpetual maintenance of the lands or easement, and funding of that maintenance work fell to others.
Over recent years many new lands conservancy organizations have been established. Many of these organizations are small and local. They serve an important mission of protecting local area values, including natural lands and open spaces in the midst of urban and suburban development. While this is a good cause, the notion of perpetual (meaning forever) maintenance needs to be considered seriously. Will your organization exist forever? Is it reasonable to expect funding forever to run and pay employees of your organization, plus funding forever for lands maintenance needs whatever may arise: fencing, machinery, structures, security, and on – forever?
Such considerations need to be addressed as part of feasibility planning of organizations involved in lands conservancy. In my example above, changes came rapidly that impacted well-reasoned financial modeling of costs. Lands conservancies would do well to consider if their primary mission is to broker ways to put lands into a conserved status or to maintain conserved lands – forever. Many lands conservancies try to do both, and many have the ability to do both. But for some, either due to miscalculations or unexpected circumstances, forever may be too long a time to maintain financial viability.
For the organization I worked for, developing funding for and seeing to land conservation was paramount to our mission. Maintaining those lands in conservation forever was just as well left to organizations better positioned locally and financially to take on that forever responsibility.
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(c) Rudolph Rosen 2016
Rudolph Rosen is author of the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising a peer-reviewed textbook on fundraising management and increasing fundraising success through effective business management and volunteer and staff empowerment and training.