Lone Wolf Photography/shutterstock

Lone Wolf Photography/shutterstock

To combat worsening pollution, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) launched a $50 million Making History fundraising drive last year to help its nonprofit Chesapeake Oyster Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, community organizations, oyster growers, and other partners do three vital things: plant 10 billion water-filtering oysters in the Bay, plant 10 million pollution-buffering trees along watershed areas in Pennsylvania, and recruit one million advocates—many of them students educated in Bay science by the CBF—to contact their representatives in Washington, DC, all by 2025.

It’s an ambitious agenda, but one that the tough, seasoned organization is determined to see through, because the 200-mile-long Chesapeake Bay, the largest of more than 100 estuaries in the U.S. and the third-largest in the world, is struggling. The Bay is literally choking on nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, which encourages algae blooms that kill underwater grasses and create dead zones where no life can thrive. 

Founded in 1967 to protect and restore the Bay, the CBF and its partners are committed to stewarding the 64,000 square-mile Bay watershed that includes parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Delaware, and West Virginia. The six states are home to 18 million people.

The pillars of the foundation’s mission are education about Bay science, advocating for the defense of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint (federal and state-mandated pollution-reduction goals adopted for each of the six states from 2017 to 2025), and litigating as needed to ensure the blueprint’s implementation. The goals also include restoring trees, oysters, and other systems to achieve water-quality improvements. 

Diversifying Revenue

Since its founding more than 50 years ago, the CBF has faced an uphill battle in its quest to clean and restore the Bay, but its members and donors are resolute and passionate about its mission, says Katharene Snavely, the charity’s vice president of development. The organization, she notes, has worked hard to diversify its revenue-generating activities, after creating a membership program that continues to be a backbone of support for its pollution-fighting activities.

“Membership tends to hold steady,” Snavely says. “We have about 300,000 members,” who each give anywhere from $5 to more than $1 million annually. “We work hard to make sure that we’re collecting good data and talking to our donors and members about what they care about,” she adds. Recent polling indicates that they care most about reducing the effects of climate change, air pollution, and urban and suburban storm-water runoff.

The fundraising goal for fiscal 2019, which ended June 30, was $27 million, Snavely says. “We raise 85  percent of the organization’s annual revenue.” That includes gifts from members (who contribute up to $1,000 per year), mid-level donors (people who give $1,000 to $5,000 per year), and major donors (who give more than $5,000 each year). 

“We’re seeing growth in all sectors,” Snavely says.  The elite group who contribute $50,000 or more annually, she adds, has grown by 8 percent over the past five years. 

“Planned giving is another one we’ve seen a lot of growth in as well, and there’s a ton of opportunity,” Snavely says. “Our Chesapeake Legacy Circle Members (individuals who have chosen to include the CBF in their estate plans) will grow by more than 20 percent in fiscal year 2019.”

Like some other organizations, the CBF has ventured into offering social-impact bonds. The charity is now helping two cities—Baltimore and Hampton Roads, Virginia—implement environmental-impact bonds as they are called, an alternative to traditional fundraising that enables people to invest money in a financial vehicle that earns them a return for achieving desirable social outcomes as judged by a third-party organization.

“We have a piloted project for these bonds, thanks to an anonymous donor who gave a large gift to explore these kinds of innovative tools,” Snavely says.

In Baltimore, for example, the CBF’s Environmental Impact Bond is nearing approval by the city.  The city is selling the bond, which will raise $6 million to fund more than 100 infrastructure projects like bio-swales and rain gardens that absorb runoff water from the street, parking lots, and sidewalks, thus helping to beautify the city. 

The investors who buy the bond will get higher returns if the plants in those projects fare well. If the plants stay healthy, maintenance costs are reduced. With the bonds, the city gets money to pay for the projects over the long term, and investors get a chance to support something that improves city life.

Galas and More

The CBF also has two large fundraising events each year. One is Bands in the Sand on the beach near the charity’s headquarters in Annapolis. Now in its 15th year, the event netted $285,000 when it was last held in  June.

“This year we had about 1,600 people out on the beach and in boats on the water, with great bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy,” Snavely says. 

About five years ago, she notes, the foundation launched DC on the Half Shell, another event that nets about $400,000. “It’s not black tie, it’s not a sit-down,” says Snavely. “It’s a lively and fun event where watermen and oyster farmers in Maryland and Virginia bring oysters for our 600 guests to enjoy.”

“Government grants,” Snavely says, “are a very small part of the CBF’s revenue, under eight percent. The organization, she adds, is very active in protecting and advocating for that government money, which pays for oversight efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor efforts to clean and protect the Chesapeake Bay.”

Overall the federal government contributes about $75 million annually to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is administered largely by EPA staffers, and “close to two-thirds of it is provided directly to state and local partners for watershed restoration, protection, and monitoring,” explains AJ Metcalf, the foundation’s media coordinator  “We often term it as the glue that holds the states together,” he says. “They provide the oversight. So while the states work to clean up pollution in their own region, the EPA staffers and other government officials evaluate how the states’ methods are working, where they should invest more money, or where problems are persisting.  We see them as an important tool in the whole plan.”

The CBF also started a Bay Raiser peer-to-peer social media campaign this year. While it is tailored to young people, the charity is seeing broad early participation from all ages and by corporations. 

“We’ve recently rolled out this program in response to an increased demand from members who want to give younger people the tools and resources to fundraise on behalf of the Bay,” Snavely says. “We can bring in these new supporters and then steward them in a meaningful way so they grow with the CBF.”

Retaining Loyal Donors, Hunting for New Ones

The CBF’s retention of supporters and its diversification of revenue streams are among what Snavely considers the organization’s biggest fundraising successes. The organization has been so good at diversification, she adds, that the CBF’s biggest fundraising challenge now is finding new donors. 

“In our communications audit, we found that the CBF skews very high on trust” among peer organizations and with constituents, she says. “That speaks to 52 years of being very mission-focused.”

“I’m so grateful for all our donors,” Snavely says. “We are acutely aware of all the choices people have and all the demands.  Every gift that comes in is inspiring for all of us.”

She adds: “People are watching all over the country what is happening right here in the Chesapeake Bay. That’s what keeps us going every day.”

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