Securing Tomorrow’s Success, One At-Bat At a Time

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the April 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

I have spent over a quarter-century in leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, and you know what? I still don’t like asking people for money. Like all of my professional peers, I am continually researching prospects, cultivating donors, crafting appeals, making cases, and asking for gifts — and despite all of that effort, more often than not, the answer is still “no.”

Being a fundraiser is analogous to being a baseball batter in that regard: if you’re really good at your job, you can pull a .300 average (i.e. 30% success rate), but more than two-thirds of the time you’re going to strike out, get tagged out, or hit what looks like a glorious stroke into deep center field, only to see it snatched away against the wall. But those of us who make careers in this field learn to shake off those bad at-bats, take some practice swings, and step up to the plate again, with the never-flagging confidence that the next at-bat just might be a highlight-reel game-winner.

One of the nicest things about being CEO of TREE Fund is that a sizable percentage of our annual gift solicitations are handled by volunteers, most especially our ISA Chapter Liaisons and our Tour des Trees riders. People rightly marvel at the physical challenges of the Tour (I ride it, so I know how hard it is), but as a professional fundraiser, I’m honestly more awed by the fact that our riders are willing and able, year after year, to solicit friends, family members, coworkers, colleagues, strangers, whoever it takes, to raise a lot of money for our research programs. Wow!

That extraordinary level of volunteer commitment allows our staff team to focus more on business partnerships, direct mail solicitations, and other forms of giving that either defray the expenses associated with the Tour, underwrite operations, or enhance our endowment to ensure our long-term viability. Another area where we focus staff attention, though a bit more behind-the-scenes, is on planned giving. Unlike annual giving — where a donor makes a contribution to a charity as an outlay of current assets or income — planned gifts are current decisions to make future gifts, most often from an estate via bequests, insurance policies, or retirement plan distributions.

For individuals and families who wish to make legacy gifts that are guaranteed to support their philanthropic interests in perpetuity, planned gifts may provide the most effective ways of achieving such goals. We have an amazing group of supporters called The Heritage Oak Society who have already established such legacy commitments. We’re going to be making a formal appeal for The Heritage Oak Society this summer, so you’ll be hearing more from me on this topic then — unless, of course, you decide to give a grateful fundraiser an intentional walk to first base by reaching out to express your interest before I ask.

I’ll be over here in the dugout if you’d like to share some sunflower seeds and talk it over. It could be a winning proposition for you, for me, and best of all, for TREE Fund.

I Googled “Planned Giving” for a stock image to accompany this article, and they’re almost all tree related!

People Make the Mission

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the December 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

As I write my final column for 2018, we are deep into TREE Fund’s annual year-end operating appeal. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for a long time, so I’ve come to associate these appeals with the season: there’s turkey, there’s shopping, there’s revelry, there’s resolutions, and in the midst of all that, there’s a last push to raise funds, to give donors both “feel-good” experiences and year-end tax benefits.

I wrote here back in September about how changes in Federal law may impact the tax benefit of those gifts, but also how important it is that we all still “keep charity charitable,” empowering and celebrating the good work that nonprofits do in so many ways, in so many places, for so many people. That charitable intent is particularly important when it comes to the unrestricted operating funds that many year-end appeals support. They may not have the pizazz of brick and mortar giving, nor the permanence of endowments, but they are crucial to what we do.

For some folks outside of the nonprofit world, that phrase — “unrestricted operating funds” — may have unintended negative connotations: “Wait, you can do anything you want with it? Are you going to just spend it on overhead? Is that okay? Maybe I’d better give to this restricted endowment pool instead.” But all it really means is that we have the flexibility to support our “areas of greatest need” internally, and for TREE Fund, that need largely equates to people!

When you remove grants we pay from our operating budget, about three-quarters of the remaining expenses pay for the folks who actually do the work to fulfill our mission — and do it well, if it’s not inappropriate for me to say so. That’s Barb managing the grants, Karen communicating our research findings, Monika educating our donors, Maggie managing community engagement, including the Tour des Trees that Paul directs, Dipika keeping the books, and Russ ensuring our computer systems support it all. Plus me, often on the road, doing my best to champion tree science and the professionals who benefit from it.

Some of those folks you may know, some not. Some are employees, some are contractors, some part-time, some full. All are passionate about our mission, work hard to pursue it, and are largely supported by unrestricted operating funds, secured via appeals, partnerships or events. So anytime you email, call, engage on social media, read a newsletter article, share a research finding, or see a TREE Fund team member in person giving you great service in pursuit of our shared goal, then that’s what “unrestricted operating funds” are all about: it’s the people who make the mission.

 

You can click the advert to donate online. Do it for the people!!

For Your Consideration: TREE Fund’s Year-End Appeal

Dear Friends of TREE Fund:

It’s a simple fact: people need trees as an essential component of their healthy, sustainable communities. But like anything worth having, the trees we live with require special care. Trees did not evolve to coexist with people, buildings, roads, and modern community infrastructure, so if they are to thrive in our urban forests, they need the best care possible, provided by professional arborists, drawing on fact-based, replicable research. That’s where TREE Fund comes in — but only with continued support from faithful donors and believers like you.

TREE Fund has been a leading source for tree science funding since 2002, with hundreds of projects awarded and countless valuable results shared across the global tree care community. To cite but one example, Dr. Brian Kane is a long-time TREE Fund Researcher who has contributed profoundly to the global tree care knowledge base over the years; I have attached an article from our September Research Report about Brian’s work to give you a sense of his progress.

This month, I asked Brian to co-sign a “new friends” appeal with me to about 5,000 prospective donors, asking them to join us in supporting the ever-expanding body of research and science necessary to keep our urban forests healthy, sustainable and beautiful. In that new donor letter, we noted that many practices in arboriculture and urban forestry will change in the years ahead as urban environments evolve, just as they’ve evolved since you first became a TREE Fund supporter. With your help, we have been one of the few organizations funding applied research to help today’s tree care professionals anticipate tomorrow’s burning questions before they detrimentally impact our trees — and the communities that benefit from them.

Our generous supporters allowed us to fund over two dozen research projects in the past year, including Brian’s crucial ongoing work. Can we count on your help again as we work to sustain our urban forests and empower the skilled professionals who care for them? You may make a contribution to support our work by clicking here.

Your gift will truly make a difference, now and for years to come.

Click The Donate Tree to support TREE Fund’s Annual Year-End Appeal

Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)

Buckeye State: Biked!

I’m back home in Chicago today after completing the 2018 Tour des Trees, plus three bonus days of work events and presentations in Columbus, Ohio after the cycling event wound down. The final Tour mileage count was about 585 miles for the week, and as of this afternoon, we’ve raised nearly $328,000. (The campaign stays open until October 1, so you’re welcome to still support our 2019 budget here, if the after report moves you more than the advance pitches!)

This is my fourth Tour des Trees, and it was a tough one. The terrain in Northeastern Ohio is “lumpy” (as our Tour Director would say), and we climbed about 28,000 feet of mostly punchy steep little hills that didn’t often give you the reward of a nice descent when you finished them. We also had three century days in a row in the middle of the week, with the longest one being 116 miles. We had heavy rain one day, but for the most part, we actually got lucky with slightly cooler and cloudier days than the region normally produces in July and August. Most importantly, our 75 participants and 20 support team members all made it around the course safely, with no accidents or incidents of note. We’ll take that and bank it.

The program side of the Tour this year was truly awesome, with many great community engagement stops, visits to some of our key corporate partners (most notably The Davey Tree Care Company, who announced a $250,000 endowment pledge when we visited their headquarters in Kent), and just a really positive vibe on and off the road from everyone we interacted with. Many of my own rest stops were filled with media availabilities or presentations with our hosts and guests, so it often made for a frantic day of pushing hard for me, but it’s really all worth it when you see how much it means to folks to have us roll through and celebrate their trees with them.

Our friends at ACRT invited us to participate in one particularly special event, and then they produced just a lovely little film about it that really captures the spirit of the Tour, I think. It’s worth two minutes to check it out:

Our support team includes a outstanding young photographer named Coleman Camp (who’s also a killer cyclist, which is convenient!), and he’s working to get a week’s worth of amazing images up at our Flickr page, here. I’ll use his work for the rest of this post to shift us from “tell” to “show” mode about my own experiences, with deep thanks to everyone who supported me and the other Tour riders this year. We literally have the first discussion meeting about the 2019 Tour  (Kentucky and Tennessee) with our staff and Tour Director tomorrow, so as we already start looking forward, here’s hoping maybe you’ll think about joining us, with a full year to get ready for a life-changing adventure!

Day One, just before roll out.

At our first event, the Mayor of Gahanna read a proclamation declaring July 29 Tour des Trees Day.

Strategizing with Thom Kraak, who received the prestigious Ken Ottman Volunteer Award at closing dinner.

So! Many!! Hills!!! (I was actually pleased with my climbing, given how little of it I get to do in Chicago).

We reached Lake Erie right by the R&R Hall of Fame, then turned back into the hills . . .

We meet so many cool people on the road, and it’s a delight to talk trees with them all.

And we meet loads of cool trees, including the historic Signal Tree near Akron.

As part of our educational mission, we leave behind children’s trees books with local libraries.

The Big Check! Thanks, Davey!!

We planted a Liberty Tree at the Ohio Statehouse, as we did in Maryland last year.

The team on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, before our last three mile ceremonial slow roll.

Celebrating our top fundraisers at the closing ceremony. Go team!! And bring on 2019!