Editor’s note: Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during December-1999, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Relatively little has been written about generating earned income from the sales of goods and services. Next year, Chardon Press will publish Selling Social Change: How to Earn Money from Your Mission, by Andy Robinson. The book explores how two dozen progressive organizations across the U.S. and Canada have found ways to develop and sell goods, services and publications that support and extend their missions. In doing so, they are discovering new strategies for educating their communities, activating their constituents, and expanding their budgets. This article examines the many approaches used by one organization, the Burns Bog Conservation Society.
Just a half-hour drive from downtown Vancouver lies a unique landscape filled with carnivorous plants, sphagnum moss, bears, water lilies, foxes, wild rosemary, sandhill cranes, Pacific tree frogs, black-tailed deer, a “bonsai forest” of shoulder-high lodgepole pine, patches of ground that quake and shiver when you walk—and the biggest city dump west of Toronto. To help protect this important natural area from further encroachment, the Burns Bog Conservation Society is raising money to safeguard the bog with conservation purchases and community outreach.
At 10,000 acres, Burns Bog is the largest urban wilderness in North America. It began forming 5,000 years ago when the glaciers receded and left a large, poorly drained basin, which over the centuries fostered lots of plant growth. The resulting area, known as a raised peat bog —peat is composed of slowly decaying plants — is the largest on the West Coast.
More than 150 species of birds live in the bog, while dozens of others visit during their migration along the Pacific Flyway. Twenty-eight mammal species make their home there. Many of the unusual plants, including velvet-leafed blueberry and bog rosemary, are remnants of the Ice Age. Biologist Richard Hebda calls it “A northern island in a southern climate.”
In addition to providing high-quality habitat, Burns Bog reduces carbon in the atmosphere, which helps to clean the air of pollution and reduce the threat of global warming. In fact, Burns Bog can store two to three times more carbon dioxide than a rainforest of comparable size. The bog functions as the “lungs” of metropolitan Vancouver.
Those lungs are both precious and imperiled. Two million people surround Burns Bog. The Vancouver Landfill, which handles 500,000 tons of trash per year, covers 10% of the bog. The dump is the same size as Vancouver’s famous Stanley Park and will be 134 feet high when completed. Demolition and industrial waste are also dumped into the many licensed private landfills along the area’s northern boundary. More than half of the peatlands are privately owned. In a growing region, pressures to drain and develop the land are intense. An acre per day is lost to development.
In 1988, local developers unveiled a plan — ultimately defeated — to build housing for 125,000 people on the bog and dredge a portion of it for a seaport. In response, the Burns Bog Conservation Society formed. As founding director Eliza Olson says, “We won the battle but not the war, and we wanted to be prepared when the war came.” Along with raising money for purchases, the Society man-ages the Delta Nature Reserve, a 150-acre protected area.
In addition to the usual fundraising strategies (direct mail, major gift solicitation, fundraising events, and so forth) the Burns Bog Conservation Society has created a variety of ways to earn income.
- Tours and workshops. During the spring and summer, about 200 people visit the Delta Nature Reserve each day; 800 toured the central bog during International Bog Day in 1997. Indeed, the tour groups grew so large, the organizers began to worry about their impact on remote wilderness areas. The Society is now focusing its marketing efforts on smaller groups (no more than 30 people), especially teachers and their students.
A current brochure invites teachers to “Add a local flavor to your teaching.…Today’s specials: Labrador tea, fresh wild blueberries, bog stories and legends, healthy fish, clean water and fresh air.” The basic workshop costs $15 per person and includes information on bog ecology and a demonstration of the group’s educational materials (see below). A tour designed specifically for educators takes three hours and allows them to “visit the sapsucker tree, hunt for the carnivorous sundew, breathe the relaxing scent of Labrador tea”—all for only $12 per person. A special one-day “Ecology Tour and Bog Writer’s Workshop,” featuring three local naturalists discussing how to use their books in the classroom, was offered in October 1998 for$85, with 25 people attending. Eventually, the organization plans to be certified so participating teachers can receive continuing education credits.
When it’s time to invite the class along, Burns Bog Conservation Society offers student tours of the Delta Nature Reserve ($100 per class) or the central bog ($125). As teacher Annette LeBox says, “It’s easy to teach kids how a bog works because the number of indicator species is relatively small.” She took 24 elementary school children into Burns Bog and, she reports,“those kids became naturalists.” In no time, they could identify all the bog plants plus 30 other species that grew near their school.
Staff and volunteers also offer to “bring the bog to your students” via classroom presentations ($150/hour). They typically lead two to five classes per day, though the record is 14 classes (at one school) in two days. Discounts are given when more than one class is involved.
The Society promotes seminars and tours by faxing announcements to all the schools in the region. Olson, a former teacher, follows up with calls to her colleagues. The group also sets up displays in local malls. Taken together, she says, these strategies “are starting to work.” Indeed, business has been brisk: between September 1998 and April 1999, the Society provided 95 classroom presentations and on-site tours.
2. Educational materials. The organization carries a wide range of materials for both the classroom and the general public. They created some of these products themselves and purchase others at wholesale prices. All items are promoted at their workshops, tours, and other community events.
Materials include children’s books, a 24-minute video ($40), and a full-color satellite map ($20) showing how Burns Bog fits into the metropolitan puzzle. Natural history publications, which range in price from $21 to $37, include A Teacher’s Guide to Burns Bog; A Teacher’s Resource Guide to Sandhill Cranes; and Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Pricing is determined, in part, by printing costs. Within the self-publishing industry, Olson says, a book’s cover price is typically four to seven times its printing and binding costs. To keep prices affordable, the Society sells their self-published books at four times the printing cost. The group also saves on expenses by using student interns to help develop and design their books. The strategy works—the Teacher’s Guide, for example, has sold more than 400 copies.
“After reading the Guide, I was inspired,” says LeBox, a former instructor at a local teacher’s college. “I’ve used it to successfully teach a wetlands unit to a class of kindergarten children. It’s one of the best tools I’ve ever used.”
LeBox, author of the forthcoming children’s book, Wild Bog Tea, describes herself as “obsessed with bogs.” She blames her obsession on Olson, who, in her words, “has really ‘sold’ that bog. Because of Eliza, everyone in the region knows about Burns Bog.”
Burns Bog Conservation Society also publishes a free visitor’s pamphlet, which is underwritten through corporate support. After numerous requests, the booklet was trans-lated from English into Punjabi and Mandarin Chinese to accommodate Vancouver’s substantial Asian population.
The artwork and layout are identical among all three versions, which saved time and money in production. Olson points out that the cover of the Mandarin guide was printed in red and gold, which are “culturally correct” colors. When Chinese visitors see the booklet, she says, “their faces just light up.” She notices Asian families wandering through the reserve with the children reading the English version and their grandparents reading the one in Mandarin.
3. Bog-related merchandise. Labrador tea, which grows abundantly in the area, was traditionally used by the indigenous peoples as a medicine for sore throats and colds, and is said to have a calming affect. Society volunteers collect, package, and sell it. Logo T-shirts, artwork and a fragrant soap made with bog herbs are also available at the Society’s office and Web site. All told, sales of publications and other merchandise totaled $10,000 in 1998, while educational programs and tours accounted for about $5,000.
The Society is now experimenting with “affinity checks” as a source of earned income. The checks feature a greater sandhill crane and the message, “Burns Bog—Wild Forever,” plus the organization’s name and logo. If members and supporters buy a minimum number of checks—50,000 imprints—over the next two years, the organization will receive 10% of the check printing fees.
Olson enjoys the intellectual challenge of being a non-profit entrepreneur, saying, “We constantly strive to be creative. We try to look at our failures and crises and see the opportunities in them.”
4. Business contacts. To build credibility with local businesses, the Society joined the local Delta Chamber of Commerce a few years ago and invited the Chamber to co-host a banquet. The keynote speaker was Dr. David Bellamy, a noted bog biologist from the United Kingdom and honorary chair of the Society. Olson says, “It was one of our best political moves.” Visitors to the bog spend money at local stores, she points out, which demonstrates how environmental protection can benefit small business. As a result, she says, “the business community is much less threatened by our work.” Her advice: join your own Chamber of Commerce and get involved. Olson now serves on the Delta Chamber’s board of directors.
Several lessons emerge from the Burns Bog experience that other groups can incorporate in their fundraising programs.
- Local pride and “sense of place” is a terrific hook for both fundraising and sales. Carefully consider this: what makes your community unique? How does your work contribute to that special sense of place? How can you take advantage of local pride to build support for your mission?
- Take what you know—in other words, your content—and package it as many ways as possible to reach different audiences through different formats. The Burns Bog Conservation Society uses its expertise in bog ecology to produce tours, educational programs, books, curricula, etc. The content of each is adapted to meet the specific needs of the specific audience.
- Recycle your basic design and “look” to establish an identity (businesses call this “branding”) and save money on design and production costs. For example, when the Society decided to publish their English language visitor’s guide in Mandarin Chinese and Punjabi, they used the same design and artwork for all three versions. GFJ