Surviving The Times: How Conservation Fundraising Found Its Foothold In A Global Pandemic

When the Coronavirus crossed the ocean and caused America to enter lockdown status last March, very few people could have predicted the impact it would have on every aspect of our lives over the next year. Goods became harder to come by, families had to settle for seeing loved ones on a computer screen, and people now actively avoid one another while out and about.

But despite these changes, and countless others, there have been aspects of our lives that have changed for the better, namely a return to pastimes that take us outside. This past year has seen an explosion of sales across all sectors of the outdoor industry. Retailers have struggled to keep product in stock as people took to the trail hiking or biking, pushing off the bank on the local lake for an afternoon paddle, or strapping on skis and dropping down into some soft powder.

The outdoor industry has also seen an influx of new hunters and anglers who are enjoying the outdoors in a different way, namely by filling the freezer. What do all these outdoor enthusiasts have in common, other than a desire to breathe some fresh air outside of their usual quarantine area? Recreational public property.

Public land has long been a cornerstone of what makes America, well... America. The notion of protecting wild spaces for public use had been brought up several times in the developing years of the United States, but it wasn’t until the 1872 inauguration of Yellowstone as the first federally protected National Park on the planet, that the conservationist movement truly got its start. Since then, dozens of National Parks have popped up around the country, which prompted states to implement parks of their own through which the public could escape to reconnect with their wilder selves. Much of the public spaces we enjoy today are funded by state or federal legislation that allocate tax dollars toward their upkeep.

In 1937, during the height of the Great Depression, hunters and firearm enthusiasts called on their senators to re-designate the proceeds of an 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition. This re-designation of funding, known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, was to be used to “give back to the resource,” to preserve the wild spaces that hunters and shooters frequent. Since its inception, over $2 billion has been used to maintain the public lands that we all enjoy.


The Great Depression wasn’t the only trial that our country faced during the 1930s. During this time, poor farming practices lead to the Dust Bowl which wrought havoc on America’s heartland, destroying crops, and degrading habitat. In 1937, a group of concerned sportsmen got together and decided that they wanted to do more to protect the natural resources that they held so dear and on January 27th, Ducks Unlimited (DU) got its start. For those who aren't familiar, Ducks Unlimited, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are the conservationists’ means of providing additional funding for public lands, to give back to the resource we all enjoy. The funding that these NGOs use for their projects, easements and education programs comes from individuals who purchase memberships, make donations, and attend fundraising events. When the world came to a halt in March 2020, much of the funding for these projects dried up, as Americans were asked to stop congregating. However, the sudden stop in funding didn't mean that these NGOs paused their work. Up north, the rushing sound of wind on the feathers of millions of birds returning to their nesting grounds marked the beginning of spring, which meant it was time for Ducks Unlimited to break ground on new conservation projects. Biologists camped out in tents, RV's, and ice houses while on projects since hotels wouldn't accept guests. While these heroes of conservation set about their work, those of us on the fundraising side of the organization were left to ponder on how to keep the heavy machinery moving.


The first thing NGOs needed to do was to continue to keep members engaged, but how? Social distancing meant fundraising banquets were no longer a possibility. In addition to the conservation message, there is another reason why attendees flock to NGO events each year. In a word, they're fun! But how do you capture the essence of fun while staying 6 feet apart and wearing a mask around others? The simple solution is you don't. Within weeks, Ducks Unlimited took fundraising to the Internet and launched its own auction website. DU merchandise, which had typically only been available for purchase at events, was available online for the first time in DU’s (then) 83-year history with everything from home goods to hunting gear with the duck head logo up for grabs. The thrill of an auction at your local banquet had been digitized and DU was able to keep the conservation machine moving. Flash-forward a couple of weeks, and DU performed another hat trick: full-blown online events. Now you could enjoy many of the aspects of a DU event such as live auctions, door prize giveaways, raffles (where legal), and conservation updates from DU biologists from the comfort of your own home, without the high bar tab or possibility of catching the virus.

While all of this solved the funding problem and kept the conservation machine going, it did raise another issue. Many NGOs are volunteer-driven and the technical challenges that online events presented initially seemed daunting to some. Typically, events are precluded with the usual massive effort of selling tickets, ordering merchandise, acquiring permits, etc. While this is a lot, it is familiar to volunteers who have been running events like these for years, (decades in some instances) and it's not easy to change overnight. After staff were able to figure out the technical aspect of virtual events, volunteers have once again become the face of conservation as they began hosting virtual events with their own unique spin on fundraising. To date, Ducks Unlimited volunteers and staff have hosted some 2,900 virtual events since the beginning of the pandemic and raised over $18.6 million dollars for conservation.


Recently, Ducks Unlimited crossed another important milestone when the organization conserved its 15 millionth acre, the funding for which was made possible by members attending virtual events and participating in online auctions. While Ducks Unlimited has found success online, volunteers and staff alike are eager for a return to hosting events in person when safe to do so. Until then, please consider visiting www.ducks.org to find a virtual event near you for a fun evening in and to help keep the conservation machine moving. We can’t do it without you.

Event Link: https://ducksunlimited.myeventscenter.com/event/Marsh-Madness-Virtual-Event-47998