Did You Know? How to grow a conservation partnership

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By Michelle Lovejoy

North Carolina is proud to be the “first in conservation” as the home of Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett and the first conservation district in Anson County. We pride ourselves on a strong conservation partnership with districts being the go-to place for natural resource management solutions on private and public lands. North Carolina has traditional conservation partners – federal, state, and county agencies – and nontraditional partners that woven together create a tapestry of conservation across the state.


Did you know the North Carolina Association of Conservation Districts created a standalone 501(c)3 in 1999? The North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation is separate from our state association and our sister RC&D councils and provides a space for our larger conservation family to weigh in on conservation issues. That family includes utility companies, agriculture and forestry advocacy groups, leaders in the agriculture industry, and banking institutions. Through the years, this unique nonprofit has brought $12 million in additional resources to the partnership, allowing us to accomplish much more than we could individually. To date, the foundation has:

  • Provided 35 no-till drills to districts and funded planting Native Warm Season Grass demonstration plots (an over $545,000 project made possible by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Golden LEAF Foundation, the Altria Group, and the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission);
  • Funded the creation of three regional Mobile Soils Classrooms, an NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts education initiative (an over $100,000 project made possible by the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, Smithfield Foods Hog Production Division, and Associations of North Carolina Farm Credits); and
  • Funded the closure of 226 inactive animal waste lagoons holding over 277,000,000 gallons of waste (a $5,000,000 project funded through a 2000 agreement between Smithfield Foods and the NC Attorney General.)

The foundation’s mission is to promote, protect, and improve North Carolina’s soil and water resources for the enhancement of economic growth and stewardship of the natural environment. Our current priorities are to improve the environment, educate our citizens, and build district capacity. The foundation’s 2015 strategic planning process sought input from all members of our conservation family. Together, they decided on the following goals:

  • Develop and enhance natural resource conservation leadership today and tomorrow;
  • Develop and enhance the foundation’s financial security to meet today and tomorrow’s needs;
  • Build partnerships that will enhance the foundation’s ability to support districts in the years ahead; and
  • Promote and support the locally-led conservation message to create a better understanding of agriculture and natural resource management.

A 21-member board of directors oversees activities with the state association, district supervisors, and other partners, including the NC Farm Bureau, the NC State Grange, Smithfield Foods, the state’s three Farm Credit locations, the NC Forestry Association, the NC Pork Council, Duke Energy, the NC Electric Membership Corporation, and the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Does this list sound familiar? These organizations or similar ones in your state would likely be just as willing to play in an active role in conservation if given the opportunity.

In the late 1990s, the NC state association noticed that funding levels were decreasing each year. I’m sure many of you have faced similar budget constraints. Several conservation district supervisors got together and asked, ‘Do we want a one time influx of funds or do we need a long-term process to generate additional funds on a regular basis?’ I can hear your answer, ‘Long-term!’ and that is exactly what they said. Our conservation family was lucky to have a professional fundraiser and someone who helped develop the community college system in our state as a district supervisor. Dr. Bill Davis of Wilkes District agreed to chair an exploratory committee, and a year later, they had an answer: create a separate nonprofit to leverage private sector resources and nontraditional partners.

It’s possible to leverage private resources and fundraise within an existing state association. We considered it, and perhaps that is what’s best for your conservation family. In North Carolina, we decided on the foundation model to invite influential people and nontraditional partner organizations to join the conservation partnership. I hear some putting the brakes on this thought train: ‘But what if we lose control of the nonprofit? What if the organization jumps the tracks and heads down a path that is not advantageous to our conservation programs?’ Everything we accomplish in conservation is enabled by a foundation of trust and strong relationships. Even though new thoughts and ideas may feel uncomfortable at first, in the end it makes all of our programs stronger to broaden the base.

Measures were put in place to ensure the nonprofit maintained an open door with our traditional conservation leaders. The foundation’s board of directors includes the state association’s first vice president, president, and past president. The NC agriculture commissioner also has a voting a seat. The remaining seats are by invitation only with the expectation that each board director will help to support the foundation through financial resources or other in-kind services. The foundation’s first executive director was a retired assistant state conservationist who understood the conservation partnership’s culture. With this hire, the foundation was able to start small with little overhead (NRCS agreed to house the nonprofit for several years) and minimal salary and benefit obligations.

At the outset, staff put in place a structure to allow local districts to provide feedback on a regular basis. This feedback loop has helped to keep the organization honest to our mission. Most of our projects come about because a partner has identified a resource gap or a need to pilot a new concept. We call the foundation an “incubator of conservation ideas” for this reason. We have set ourselves up for success by maintaining a high level of flexibility, addressing issues quickly (funding permitting), and thoroughly vetting proposals (is this project a viable solution? Is it worthy of taxpayers investment?). I am willing to go into more detail for the curious, but for now let us get to the take-homes.

Keys to Success

  • Identify the right visionary who has organizational and fundraising skills to lead the effort.
  • Be careful in how you name the new foundation. NCFSWC originally had “districts” in its name but dropped it because it turned off some funders that were hesitant to fund government projects.
  • Carefully consider your first executive director. A retired person within the core partnership can afford to work for less (more cost effective for the nonprofit) and they won’t need training on the current culture.
  • Consider a “self-perpetuating” board that has influence and can contribute significant resources. Foundation board members have included past governors, state agriculture commissioners, large agribusiness leaders, university board of governors, and major utilities.
  • Find a niche for success and stay true to your mission. Do not compete with districts, RC&Ds, or land trusts for grants from traditional funders – partners may already be pursuing EPA 319 funded stream restoration projects or holding conservation easements. Find other funding pools to play in.
  • Work closely with your state association when project opportunities come up. The NC Association takes the lead on fundraising for an event like Conservation Farm Family celebrations or to sustain an existing program like Envirothon. The foundation takes the lead if new initiatives or efforts entail more detailed project management. For statewide projects that establish new initiatives, the association is a foundation subcontractor that earns valuable administrative funding.
  • Determine the capacity to support this type of nonprofit’s work. Consider state funding resources, such as trust funds. If trust funds are not available in your state, do research up front on private foundations and corporate giving patterns.
  • NC districts have employees that can implement programs. If this is not true in your state, you’ll need to consider a different model of staffing to implement projects or focus on different types of projects.
  • Constantly re-engage the conservation partnership for input on planning for the future and changing priorities.

First Steps

Consider a conservation partnership strategic planning process to identify a five-year work plan. Consider Ex Officio seats – state association leadership, state agriculture commissioner, or others. Seek help on the legalities of establishing a nonprofit, i.e. look for a state-level “center for nonprofits” organization. Determine what the internal capacity is to support the formation of a new nonprofit. Seek donations from all conservation districts, but keep in mind that the dollar amounts are not as important as 100 percent participation. Find funders that can provide “capacity building” grants and establish a two-year plan to fund salaries and office space.

On the Horizon

Traditional state and federal funding sources continue to shrink so districts need new revenue streams. New sources of revenue might come from new projects, so be an “incubator of conservation ideas.” NCFSWC did not create a process for general fundraising in the early years, so now we’re playing catch up trying to establish an endowment. We’re in the process of figuring out how to get people to care about conservation in an “online” world, i.e. how to connect with the millennium generation. We have to keep moving the ball forward so we don’t let districts “live past their usefulness.”

michelle-lovejoyMichelle Lovejoy is executive director of the North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation. Her contact information can be found on the foundation’s website at www.ncsoilwater.org. To read archived editions of Did You Know?, head over to NACD’s eResource page.

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Tags: Conservation District, conservation districts, Locally-led conservation, NACD

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