News and analysis
July 28, 2015

Ducks Unlimited Sets Its Sights on $2 Billion for Wetlands

Ducks Unlimited

Ducks Unlimited is counting on its thousands of volunteers to help it rally new supporters.

Wetlands-preservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited is looking beyond its core of support among waterfowl hunters as it ramps up a multiyear, $2 billion fundraising campaign — an unusually large amount for a conservation organization.

Multibillion-dollar campaigns are typically the domain of large universities, hospitals, and museums, but Ducks Unlimited hopes it can join that elite company by enlisting its thousands of volunteers to help find new sources of support.

"The secret to our campaign is our volunteer network," said president Paul Bonderson Jr.

The group, along with its partner organizations in Mexico and Canada, launched the campaign’s quiet phase in 2012. The Rescue Our Wetlands — Banding Together for Waterfowl campaign had already raised half of the goal before its public announcement earlier this month. The campaign received an early boost when three members of Wetlands America Trust, the land trust and foundation for Ducks Unlimited, each pledged $25 million through their estate plans.

The campaign, part of Ducks Unlimited’s 75th anniversary celebration, will support programs to restore the breeding and migratory habitats of waterfowl, educate the public about wetlands, and help bolster the nonprofit’s endowment.

Counting Government Grants

State and federal money, such as grants from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, make up 45 percent of the nonprofit’s annual revenue. Ducks Unlimited is including those dollars in its campaign calculations, which is atypical even for comprehensive campaigns, according to Michael Nilsen, vice president of public policy for the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

It used to be frowned upon because it wasn’t considered true fundraising and because nonprofits feared donors wouldn’t give to organizations already receiving public money, said Bob Carter, president of an eponymous fundraising consulting firm. But he thinks it’s increasingly popular to disclose state and federal grants.

"I actually kind of applaud it in the name of transparency," he said. "The institutional psyche is maturing. With so many public and private partnerships out there, it’s ridiculous to hide you’re getting public grants."

Conservation easements from donated land also contribute 5 percent of Ducks Unlimited’s revenue. The donated land is appraised and, depending on its location, the easement value can be worth up to 30 percent of the property value, Mr. Bonderson said.

Volunteers and New Supporters

Ducks Unlimited owes much of its success to its robust chapter-based fundraising system, said Richard Smith, national director of development. Started in the 1970s, the group is made up of chapters and regional and state branches and includes more than 50,000 volunteers who organize fundraising dinners, auctions, and other events.

Volunteers hosted more than 4,800 such gatherings last year. Each event attracts between 75 and 400 people, who pay $35 to $300 to attend. Events, sponsors, and memberships contribute nearly a third of the nonprofit’s revenue.

Because most of Ducks Unlimited’s members are hunters, auction items tend to be sporting equipment, such as guns, fishing poles, and decoys, donated or bought at reduced prices from outdoor-sports stores such as Bass Pro Shops.

But for this campaign, the Ducks Unlimited volunteer network will be reaching out to new audiences who may appreciate its conservation mission, Mr. Bonderson and Mr. Smith said. That includes corporations interested in supporting environmental sustainability and maybe even local Audubon Society chapters.

"There are millions of birders out there that enjoy wetlands and bird-watching," Mr. Bonderson said.

Outreach efforts have included creating videos about the benefits of the nonprofit’s work and increasing social-media engagement: The group has more than 1 million Facebook followers.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.