They say that a great salesperson is one who can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. You know the type. You step out of the shower to answer the door and a half an hour later you own a new set of encyclopaedias. A good salesperson can sell anything and even though you may later wish that you hadn’t succumbed to their charms, at least you are left with something of value.
Fundraisers for non-profit organizations are sales people too but their assignment is far more difficult. Their product isn’t something tangible that you can use or resell. Instead they provide you with the means to give back to your community, protect something you hold dear or share the good fortune life has bestowed on you. Or maybe all you are after is the small tax shelter that the IRS allows on donations.
For most people, charitable giving comes after personal needs and those of their family and friends. If times are tough, their first priority is, and should be, paying the bills. That is generally followed by ensuring their future, with investments or retirement bonds and maybe an indulgence or two. As it should be, it is not until those more pressing needs are in good order that many people will consider philanthropy. So it could be said that giving to charities is a luxury item. Something considered after more important issues are addressed.
A breakdown of donations to non-profits by category indicates that giving to environment/conservation and animal related causes, totalled 2 percent of all annual donations in 2010 (US Department of the Interior 2010). The vast majority of that small allotment is used to purchase and protect habitat by organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. This leaves a very small share for non-profits like Operation Migration.
Each of the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership brings a critical expertise to the table and each is responsible for the financial means to provide that service. Operation Migration brings the manpower and the experience to teach birds to migrate and the funding to make that happen. Our support does not come from Federal or State taxes, but from people who believe in this cause and are willing to put their money where their heart is.
Leading birds with an ultralight aircraft appeals to many people. It may be the interaction of man and animal or the great adventure of flying halfway across the county. Whatever the attraction, we have a large audience of loyal supporter lovingly referred to as Craniacs. These people have dug deep to help us carry on and even given up personal indulgences to ensure that Whooping cranes will endure on our landscape. But economic times are tough and costs go up, and like most small nonprofits, Operation Migration has to work very hard to stay afloat.
The profits of any small business will be limited by the size of the neighborhood it serves. The number of cars they can sell or roofs they can replace is proportionate to the size of the population they serve. The answer to expanding a business like that lays in increasing their service area. The business term for that is market saturation and to some degree it also applies to us. We have a limited number of very loyal supporters and we are extremely grateful to them. But just as their ability to support their own needs is limited by the economy, so too is their ability to support their favorite charitable causes. So if expanding our audience is the answer, how do we do that?
Three times in the course of this project we have been a hot topic in the National news. The first was when the project began and no one had heard of such a novel approach to wildlife reintroduction. The second was when we lost an entire generation of birds to a freak storm in Florida in 2007. The last time was when the FAA questioned the legality of flying for hire in light sport aircraft and then worked so hard to find a solution in a set of rules that couldn’t anticipate the need to use aircraft to teach birds to migrate.
The publicity generated by these events helped promote the cause of safeguarding Whooping cranes and that helped us expand our audience. Losing birds was a high price to pay for increased awareness and thank heaven those events don’t come up often. So if we can’t rely on regular media coverage to spread the word and we don’t have the budget for advertising, how do we make more people aware of this cause? Luckily social media is providing an answer, however it is not one that guarantees success.
Despite the claims of experts, I don’t think anyone can predict when a particular internet post will capture the interest of the vast web audience and send the number of hits into the millions. We believe that our story can do that but how do we make it happen? There is no formula for success and it is difficult to build a business plan on something so unpredictable, but if we can provide a continuous live video feed of the birds, both on the ground and in the air, our audience should grow. We changed the format of our Field Journal for that reason and made it easier to share and more accessible on mobile devices, but that’s not enough.
The problem is that providing a live feed of birds in a secluded pen, somewhere off the beaten path is not an easy task. It is hard enough at White River Marsh where we can use a radio transmitter to reach our DSL line at our camp, 4 miles away. But it is doubly hard while on the migration when we must rely on intermittent cell signals. We are also limited by battery life and the amount of bandwidth we are allowed on the datacards we use to connect.
That is a lot of information being sent over the cell system and it is not hard to use more than your plan covers. If you have ever maxed out your phone, you know how quickly that can become expensive. As well, maintaining the camera takes a lot of staff time. Getting it up and running on one of the aircraft, between the time we decide to go and the when the aircraft lift off, is sometimes a panic. One glitch, and there are many when you broadcast remotely, and we have a audience staring at a blank screen.
Our audience has increased dramatically this year and often there are five hundred people watching, but our ambition is five thousand. We are investing a lot of money and staff time into the camera. A good part of that investment of time is donated by Mike Deline who volunteers many of his weekends to keep the camera running, but it still comes at a high cost. We also have to thank Colleen Chase, Terry Johnson, Jo Bellemer , Sue Walsh, Cindy Loken, and other more recently added camera drivers, for their hours of dedication over the summer. See below for a list of the people who give up their time to support the camera.
During the migration, we draw our largest audience but that only lasts two or three months. It is a risky undertaking with no way of knowing if, or when it will begin to pay off. And as one of our Board members pointed out, hope is not a strategy.
So once again we are asking our core audience, the people who support us to the best of their ability, to share our site with others and help us grow the audience until it reaches that magical, unknown number when the return is greater than the investment.
Special thanks to all the people that assist with the camera: Colleen Chase, Malcolm Strickland, Sue Walsh, Suzanne Elsea, Terry Johnson, Dan Harvey, Ella Moyes, Cindy Loken, Jo-Anne (Jo) Bellemer, Frederick Wasti, Peggy Main, Jeanne Husted, and Rich Smith.