Tall Timbers Endowment Campaign: Seeding our Future

By Lane Green, Executive Director

For those of you who take notice of your monthly investment statements, 401K balances and retirement accounts, the past several years have been an up and down roller coaster full of anxiety and unknowns. Not-for-profit organizations all over the country have suffered greatly through the “great recession” that began in 2008, and the subsequent slow recovery. The few that have emerged unscathed have been the ones who have tightened their belts, trimmed expenses and planned accordingly for the future. In February 2008, Tall Timbers celebrated its 50th Anniversary just as the financial markets were beginning the downward spiral to depths that hadn’t been seen in over 10 years. It was at that time that Tall Timbers, with its Board of Trustees leading the way, embarked on a major fundraising effort – an Endowment Campaign – the likes of which we had never attempted before. We followed all of the best practices of Campaign Management 101. We hired outside counsel to help craft a plan; performed a comprehensive feasibility study to test our case statement; conducted face-to-face interviews with some of our most ardent supporters and kicked off the silent phase of the largest campaign in our history – right as the Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped below 8,000. What timing!

I’m not sure what’s harder – trying to raise money for an intangible concept like sustainable endowment funds or having to do it in the toughest financial times since the stock market crashed in 1987. Needless to say, we had a game plan and moved forward with our first solicitation in January 2008. Under the leadership and guidance of the Campaign’s Co-Chairs Daphne Wood and Tom Rankin, and our Development Director Vann Middleton, we hit the ground running in the silent phase of the campaign. In a few short months, we had received 100% Board participation in the campaign, and in the process we had suddenly raised several million dollars.

The goal of the campaign was to raise significant, long-term sustainable resources for the research, conservation and education programs at Tall Timbers. In Research, we needed help in the Fire Ecology Program to shore up significant resources to replace “soft dollar” funding from grant and project dollars. In Vertebrate Ecology, we needed core operating dollars to fully fund Jim Cox’s position and to add a core funded Research Technician to his program. The Game Bird Endowment Fund, by far the most fully endowed program, needed additional resources to reach a milestone number that could adequately fund the annual needs of long-term quail research on Tall Timbers’ Kate Ireland Model Quail & Conservation Area.

The Land Conservancy had 3.5 positions COMPLETELY funded by soft dollar grants and project funds. As the largest regional land trust in both Georgia and Florida, with over 115,000 acres of land in Conservation Easement at that time, we only had two staff members out of six that were funded through our operating budget. With 80+ easements to monitor every year, and with new prospects interested in putting conservation easements on their land, we desperately needed to secure permanent funding to get the work done.

Our 10-year strategic plan identified the need to create an Education & Outreach Coordinator position, whose primary role would be to help work with landowners and managers to implement the best practices identified by our long-term research. This would be a new program and the ONLY new position identified in our Campaign plan.

Surprisingly, as the financial markets continued to tumble throughout 2008 and into the early months of 2009, where they hit rock bottom, a funny thing happened. At face to face visits, the prospects we identified from our earlier study started to open up about their love of Tall Timbers and how important the organization was in their annual charitable giving plans. People were willing to tell us that even in the darkest of times, they were prepared to help seed our future with a lasting gift to our Endowment Campaign. Just as our current Endowment Funds were losing over 30% of their value in the choppy investment markets of 2008-09, our closest friends were making pledges and promises to right the ship for the long run.

At this past month’s Naturalists’ Ball, we publicly recognized for the first time, those 74 donors who stepped up to the plate and accepted our challenge. With their generous contributions, over $9 million was raised for Tall Timbers Endowments. This is a tremendous accomplishment and one of which we are very proud. As a result, Tall Timbers has remained fiscally responsible in tough times. These new endowment dollars have allowed us to accomplish the following:

  • Fund the Red Hills Land Use Planner position, and 50% of the Land Conservation Biologist
  • Fully funded a Fire Ecology Biologist position for the Fire Ecology Program
  • Created the Education and Outreach Program ahead of schedule, by hiring a PhD level wildlife biologist
  • Fully funded the Game Bird Scientist and Biologist
  • Provide much needed program capacity to all programs at Tall Timbers

Above all else, the results of the Campaign allowed us to operate efficiently and effectively. Additionally, we were able to accomplish all of this while dropping our annual operating distribution “draw” from our Endowment Funds from a high of 7% in 2003, to a much more sustainable 4.28% in 2012.

Who knows where we’d be right now, had our Board decided not to move forward with the campaign in 2008. In my mind, there is no doubt that Tall Timbers would be a skeleton of its current self. As luck would have it, the seeds are growing and our productivity is as high as it’s ever been. The future looks bright for Tall Timbers. While we are thrilled with the $9 million result of our efforts thus far, the distribution from these funds will not completely cover our goal of 30-40% of annual operating needs. Be on the lookout for future correspondence on how you can participate and join the select group of donors who have stepped up for the future of Tall Timbers.

Thanks to all who helped plan, implement and gave to the Endowment Campaign. You have planted a foundation from which Tall Timbers can continue to grow and prosper in the years to come.

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