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Conservancy of Southwest Florida: "Gutsy" $38.5 Million Campaign Finds Success in Down Economy

Rob Moher, vice-president of development and marketing for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, looks forward to the day when "visitors will finally be able to find our nature center."

The Conservancy’s entrance is located in a quiet residential area in Naples not visible from the main roadway. But changes are on the way thanks to the success of the Conservancy’s five-year "Saving Southwest Florida" campaign. Soon a more accessible road and entrance will lead visitors to a stunning new campus. The grand re-opening is scheduled for November 2012.

In May, Conservancy president and CEO Andrew McElwaine announced that the organization had reached its fundraising goal of $38.5 million, making it one of the largest environmental campaigns in Florida history. Funds from the campaign will help the Conservancy grow as an interactive nature center and a hub for environmental research, advocacy and education.

The Conservancy has come a long way since 2004. That year, the organization decided to launch the campaign and began a nationwide search for a philanthropy consulting firm to help. Most of the firms interviewed wanted to come in and simply run the campaign. The Conservancy’s choice, Marts & Lundy, proved the exception.

"They focused on institutional strengthening," said Moher.

Senior consultant & principal Penelope Scarpucci began with a feasibility campaign planning study for the organization. She identified a number of critical issues that the Conservancy needed to resolve before launching the campaign. One of Scarpucci’s 33 recommendations was to narrow the focus of campaign initiatives at the start.

With her gentle but firm manner, "Penny was the right personality for delivering news to our board that they needed to hear—not all of it good," said Moher.

Among her recommendations, Scarpucci encouraged the organization to make significant staff increases, upgrade its fundraising software, create a more robust website and return to regular hours, even during the off-season.

"I told them, ‘If people are going to believe you’re a credible organization, you need to be running year-round,’" said Scarpucci. "Issues related to the environment don’t stop."

The leadership at the Conservancy took her ideas to heart. "Penny gave us 33 recommendations, and we spent two years working through every single one of them," said Moher.

Ron Arena, leader of the firm’s strategic communications group, and Scarpucci also helped craft the organization’s case statement and interviewed potential donors to determine fundraising goals. The Conservancy’s message of protecting Florida’s land, water and wildlife resonated strongly with donors.

"Southwest Florida is undergoing tremendous growth, and the impact on our natural resources is growing and growing," said Moher. Those wanting to make a difference supported the campaign "because they believed we had the capability to do it. We had good leadership, strong missions and a good history of getting things done."

The Conservancy, established in 1964, has a long track record of environmental research and advocacy—from monitoring sea turtle hatchlings and other species to protecting environmentally sensitive lands and waters. Each year, Conservancy staff monitor the region’s water quality and every five years publish their findings in the Estuaries Report Card.

Although the Conservancy had previously received only two one million dollar gifts in its history, the new campaign inspired larger donations. Individuals and family foundations accounted for 96% of the gifts. Most contributors lived year-round or wintered in Naples.
As momentum grew, the organization began restoring items to its wish list. The Conservancy raised its goal twice—from $25 million to $33 million and finally to $38.5 million—all during a serious economic downturn.

"We went to the public asking for $33 million in the same fall that Lehman Brothers collapsed," said Moher. "Looking back, that was pretty gutsy."

Moher is looking forward to the day when the new road—Smith Preserve Way—brings visitors to the once hidden campus. Along the way, they can enjoy the sights and sounds of the Christopher B. Smith Preserve, home of many species of rare and threatened animals including the gopher tortoise. They can meander down nature trails, observe native baby birds being rehabilitated in the von Arx Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic", take in an immersion film on the Everglades in the Jeannie Meg Smith Theater or view sea turtles up close at the family-friendly Dalton Discovery Center.

"Not to lose sight, it’s not just about the Nature Center. We added over three million dollars for policy and one million dollars for advocacy efforts," said Moher. "The campaign was pivotal to providing us with the resources to petition critical policies."

He appreciated the guidance provided along the way by Marts & Lundy. "They were involved from day one until the final phase," he said. "They were very important to the success of the campaign."

He also praised the campaign cabinet led by Nick Penniman, Jane Pearsall and Tuck Tyler and the leadership of Board Chair Dolph von Arx. "The level of leadership was second to none. They kept people engaged for seven years."

Donors now view the Conservancy as a "philanthropy destination," said Moher. "That means that donors view your organization as a good place to invest in, to make significant gifts that will be handled well and put to good use. "

Scarpucci enjoys watching clients grow through the campaign process. "We really believe campaigns help transform institutions and organizations," she said. "And this one certainly did."

Clients such as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida make the frequent travel and long hours of her job rewarding. "Every now and then, you get clients who really listen and do the follow-through," she said. "And when you do, you just love working with them."


Senior Consultant & Principal
Atlanta, Georgia
Senior Consultant & Principal; Leader of Strategic Communications  
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania