Conservation seen central to Triangle’s prosperity

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As the Triangle’s population and economy continue to boom, the region is getting thirstier, and protecting its water supply is as essential to sustaining and improving its health and the quality of life for all its residents as making sure it has good roads, schools and other basic infrastructure systems.

What’s more, the job of conserving the land that the region’s supply of clean water depends on is interconnected with addressing other critical needs ranging from food and health to economic development and fighting poverty.

Yet land conservation often is perceived as a marginal issue, making it tougher to include environmental planning in the regional thinking and collaborative strategies the Triangle needs to continue to thrive.

That was the message at Triangle Donors Forum, a quarterly meeting of philanthropists that was held June 12 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and sponsored by Triangle Community Foundation.

“Many people think about conservation as something that happens ‘out there’ and not relevant to our lives,” Chad Jemison, executive director of Triangle Land Conservancy in Durham and a panelist at the Donors Forum, told about three dozen people who attended the session.

Jonathan Howes, senior public service fellow at the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and retired director of UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, told the Donors Forum that land conservation issues need to be integral to policy discussions in the region.

Howes, who moderated the panel, said North Carolina traditionally has preserved its natural assets, in large part through trust funds created by state lawmakers, funding that recently “has declined or been eliminated because of the state of the economy and changing politics.”

The drop in public funds for conservation has created “an opportunity for private philanthropy to fill that gap,” he said.

Robin Jacobs, executive director of the Eno River Association in Durham and another panelist, said money was the biggest issue for conservation in the region.

While some funds are available to help with the actual purchase of land or easements for conservation purposes, she said, it is more difficult to secure the dollars needed for the “transactional” costs associated with the purchase of land and for the “stewardship” required to take an environmental inventory of the land and make sure it remains protected.

“None of us any more will accept donations for land or buy land unless we know where we’ll get the money to pay forits stewardship, said Jacobs, who also is a partner in the Chapel Hill law firm Epting and Hackney.

Jemisen said conservation will play an increasingly critical role for the Triangle.

“There’s an incredible opportunity to make conservation more relevant to urban neighborhoods and metro areas, creating access and linking to health and poverty issues,” he said.

Triangle Land Conservancy, for example, is helping to develop urban gardens and provide access to food, trails and parks, he said.

Five years ago, Triangle Land Conservancy received 200 acres outside Carrboro through a bequest. Now, through partnerships, parts of that land are used for after-school and camp activities by a kindergarten and preschool, and as farmland by Burmese refugees.

Jemisen said the national Land Trust Alliance has land trusts in nearly every county in the U.S.

“Historically, at the state and federal level,” he said, “there’s strong bipartisan support for conservation.”

Jacobs said North Carolina has the biggest share of accredited land trusts in the U.S.

“We’re working hard and doing a good job,” often in partnership with local cities, towns and counties, she said.

Jemisen said a national survey by the Trust for Public Land found an 80 percent approval rating on the willingness to finance bonds or sales-tax increases for clean drinking water.

“The will is there,” he said. “We need to get an increase in political pressure locally.”

Howes, a former mayor of Chapel Hill and a former secretary of the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, said raising public awareness and conveying a sense of the importance of conservation to public officials will be critical.

Conservation, he said, “ought not to be a red or blue issue.”

Jemisen said state funding for conservation likely will return over time in some form.

“But we can’t wait for that to happen,” he said.

Particularly as the region continues to recruit companies and talent, he said, “the pace of growth in the Triangle demands more immediate action.”

Nonprofit focuses on sustainability

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Based on an analysis of 25 homes, the city of Winston-Salem contracted with a handful of companies to do $250 worth of weatherization work at each of those homes, plus another 250 homes, all of them in low-income neighborhoods.

That work has helped reduce those households’ energy costs by 8 percent to 10 percent.The study of those savings was performed by three student interns at The Winston-Salem Sustainability Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides programs and educational services to raise awareness and foster sustainability.

Formed in March 2010, the organization operates with an annual budget of less than $100,000, a staff of one person and a contract worker, a core of 20 volunteers, and typically five summer interns who are college or graduate students. The agency works in space donated by the city of Winston-Salem in the Bryce A. Stuart Municipal Building.

The Resource Center has served a total of 2,000 to 3,000 businesses, schools, local cities and other clients, says Rita Gale Cruise, who joined the Center in October 2012 after working as energy efficiency program coordinator in the West Virginia office of the Natural Capital Investment Fund. The Fund, a community development financial institution certified by the U.S. Treasury, is an arm of The Conservation Fund.

In another pilot project, for example, the Resource Center worked with employees at the Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem to develop a “sustainability action plan” they could use to get involved in sustainability work involving such issues as energy, water, air, waste, recycling and health.

Based on a recommendation from the Resource Center, Caterpillar is looking at teaming with Herbal Life, which this year will open a distribution center nearby, and Piedmont Area Regional Transportation, which will provide dedicated vans the two companies’ employees can use to get to work and save energy and money.

Instrumental in developing that plan, Cruise says, has been Matthew Johnson, chair of the Resource Center’s board and manager of the Caterpillar plant.

The Resource Center also has worked with Caterpillar employees to create a community garden at its manufacturing plant, located off I-40 in southeast Winston-Salem near the Level Cross neighborhood.

The employees want to grow fruits and vegetables for their own use and to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.

The Resource Center also serves as fiscal agent for Forsyth County’s Community Food System Consortium, a collaborative effort spearheaded by Forsyth Futures to connect consumers, producers and distributors of local food, such as farmers, restaurants, groceries and schools in a five-county region.

In a partnership last year with the Forsyth County Health Department, an intern at the Resource Center conducted a survey to identify “food deserts,” or local communities that lack access to fresh food.

The Health Department, in turn, is using the information to try to find ways to get fresh food into communities.

In a pilot project in East Winston-Salem, for example, the Health Department is teaming with Rebecca’s Community Store to get fresh food from local farmers, as well as information about nutrition, to local residents.

The Resource Center, which last fall raised $5,000 through an annual appeal, also received a $25,000 grant from The Winston-Salem Foundation to support operations and to follow up a 2008 project that developed sustainability indicators for the community.

It also has received a $2,500 grant from Piedmont Natural Gas to support sustainability education.

And this fall it will host an event to present community awards for sustainability and raise money.

A key goal for the Resource Center, Cruise says, is to help people “learn about how they can become more sustainable.”

Fundraising, Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

Conservation-oriented environmental groups have focused their fundraising on getting donors more involved in “places that matter,” and showing them the impact of their gifts, says Doug Barker, co-founder and principal at Barker & Scott Consulting, a firm that provides management consulting for nonprofits, including environmental organizations.

“We have results you can walk on,” says Barker, quoting John Sawhill, former CEO at The Nature Conservancy, where Barker was the chief information officer.

So environmental and conservation groups have been inviting donors and prospective donors to outings and talking to them about “what’s so special about those particular places.”

Those outings can include activities for families and children, and can pave the way for additional gifts.

Recognizing that the environment is “visually compelling,” Barker says, environmental organizations also are providing donors and prospective donors with images of “what’s at stake in terms of nature, and also what some of the threats are.”

And those groups are using traditional and digital media to reach a broad range of constituents.

“At the end of the day, and not just for environmental groups, you’re really looking at a multi-channel integrated strategy for how you’re going to engage your constituents,” Barker says. “Certain strategies resonate more with some groups than others. But it’s having full portfolios of ways to engage people that can be so effective.”

Those strategies, he says, depend on identifying the needs of individual donors and groups of donors.

For major donors, for example, “it’s all about relationship-building, figuring out what that particular donor is passionate about and how they really want to be engaged.”

Environmental and conservation groups can invite donors on trips, showing them first-hand areas that may be at risk, and developing a more personal relationship.

And organizations increasingly are working to show donors the impact of their giving.

Some groups are using research studies and reports to show the economic value of functioning ecological systems, and providing calculators that visitors to their websites can use to measure their carbon footprint through their diet and the use of home energy, driving, flying, recycling and waste.

They also provide tools, tips and information that people can use to take action, whether to reduce their carbon footprint or contact policymakers, as well as quizzes and adoption programs that can engage them.

World Wildlife Fund invites people to “test your elephant IQ,” for example, or to make a symbolic donation to adopt a snow leopard or penguin.

Those kinds of features can increase a donor’s “affinity and trust and overall respect for an organization that probably could also result in their increasing their support,” Barker says. “It’s a way to make a connection with what you’re doing, even if symbolically, in a more meaningful and tangible way.”

Next: Human services emphasize communication, planning

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

American Tobacco Trail boosts East Coast Greenway project

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — The bridge that recently was installed over I-40 near The Streets at Southpoint connecting two segments of the American Tobacco Trail represents a key link in an effort to build a greenway system from the southernmost tip of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico through Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border.

“What we’re creating is a linear park all the way from Key West to Canada,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, director of the Durham-based East Coast Greenway Alliance.

Formed in 1991 by greenway leaders in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston, the Alliance works as a “unifying and advocacy organization” to help cities and towns in 15 states and the District of Columbia acquire land, and to help states convert abandoned rail corridors for trails “that are safe and accessible to people of all ages and abilities,” Markatos-Soriano says.

The new bridge over I-40, as well as nearly four miles of paths leading up to the bridge, for example, were funded with $8 million from the city of Durham, including state and federal funds.

Nearly 20 percent of 395 miles of the the East Coast Greenway that are planned for North Carolina and will run from just northeast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Kerr Lake at the Virginia border have been completed.

In the Triangle, 90 percent of 75 miles of projected Greenway is expected to have been  completed in less than a year.

North Carolina also will include an alternative stretch of 390 additional miles of the East Coast Greenway running along the coast from Wilmington to the Virginia border.

The Greenway, which will serve over 45 million people living in communities it crosses, and already attracts 10 million visits a year, will serve as an “urban sister” to the Appalachian Trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, says Markatos-Soriano.

Operating with an annual budget of $520,000, a staff of four people working full-time and three working part-time, and offices in Durham, Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., and Leland, Fla., the Alliance counts on 20,000 supporters, including 2,100 dues-paying members and 80 donors who give $500 or more a year.

In North Carolina, the Alliance has 135 members and 1,000 people who subscribe to its monthly e-newsletter or follow its Facebook and Twitter pages.

Individual donors and members account for over 60 percent of revenues for the Alliance, while government funding accounts for nearly 10 percent, mainly to pay for guides that have been published on the segments of the Greenway that run through Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Foundation support represents about 20 percent of the budget, up from 15 percent a year ago, and the Alliance also receives support from six companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Performance Bike in Chapel Hill.

The Alliance is about to hire a South Atlantic coordinator to help accelerate progress on the Greenway in Virginia and the Carolinas.

And on Oct. 25 and 26, it will host its fall national meeting in Raleigh, an event that will include a State of the Greenway Summit and a cross-Triangle bike ride.

“North Carolina and the Triangle are fast becoming a national greenway leader,” Markatos-Soriano says.

SEEDS digs deeper to cultivate being green

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — One morning in April, 10 middle-school students from Triangle Day School spent three hours learning about the environment and working in the garden at SEEDS, an educational community garden in downtown Durham.

Also in April, an educator from SEEDS spent a full day at Central Elementary School in Hillsborough, rotating through the classrooms to teach students about insects, reptiles and other animals that live in gardens and are critical for their ecosystems and for growing food.

And twice a week, roughly half-a-dozen women from Good Samaritan Inn, the shelter for women and children at the Durham Rescue Mission, work as volunteers in SEEDS’ nearly two-acre garden, and in return take the harvest to the shelter’s kitchen to feed their families and peers.

Launched in 1994 by co-founders Brenda Brodie and Annice Kenan, SEEDS initially aimed to create community gardens on unused vacant and blighted properties to address a lack of access to good, healthy, fresh food for low-income residents.

That effort helped spur the creation of 15 community gardens, some of which still are operating.

But SEEDS has shifted its focus to using its own garden and its expertise to “teach people how to garden, grow organically, and learn about principles of sustainable agriculture, organic gardening and environmental stewardship,” says Emily Egge, executive director at SEEDS.

Operating with an annual budget of $414,000 and a full-time staff of six people, SEEDS serves over 1,000 people a year, mainly through partnerships with schools and nonprofits.

It works with at least a dozen schools a year that take field trips to the SEEDS garden or get visits from SEEDS educators.

Its DIG program, or Durham Inner-city Gardeners, for example, provides year-round part-time jobs for five high school students, plus summer jobs for another 10 to 15 students.

And it recently broke ground on a renovation project to expand its building at the corner of Gilbert and Elizabeth streets to 5,000 square feet from 3,200 square feet.

The project will include more classroom space, expanding what had been a small residential kitchen to a teaching kitchen with four to six student stations, and adding a “mud room” to store garden tools and supplies, and to handle activities such as potting, transplanting and painting.

SEEDS temporarily has relocated its offices to rented space across the street in the John O’Daniel Exchange, and expects to move back to its renovated quarters by the end of the year.

To help pay for its expanded services, SEEDS aims over the next three years to increase its annual budget $500,000 by securing more foundation grants and more gifts from individual donors, and through the redesigned website it launched six months ago that has helped generate $8,000 in online giving in the fiscal  year that ends June 30, or roughly four times the total two years ago.

And on May 19, SEEDS will hold its 5th annual Pie Social from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at The Pavilion at Durham Central Park on Foster Street to raise money for its DIG summer program.

“We want everyone who comes through out gates, whatever their age, background or knowledge,” Egge says, “to leave with something that will impact their life, their views of sustainability, and their capacity to grow and make decisions for themselves about what they’re  eating, where they’re buying it from, and how they’re feeding their families.”

Catawba Lands Conservancy focuses on growth

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 1976, fewer than 90,000 acres in the 15-county region that includes Charlotte had been developed.

By 2006, developed land in the region had grown to nearly 1 million acres, a total that is expected to nearly double by 2030.

Working to try to balance that development with conservation is the Charlotte-based Catawba Lands Conservancy, or CLC, a land trust formed in 1991 to protect land that affects the quality of drinking water in a six-county region.

“Our goal is not to impede development but to be part of the growth,” says Tom Okel, executive director.

A key goal for CLC as the region keeps growing is to help it continue to “value conservation so that this area remains such a special place to work and live,” says Okel who joined the organization in October 2011 after a 20-year career in investment banking, most recently as global head of syndicated capital markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Operating with an annual budget of roughly $750,000, CLC has protected nearly 13,000 acres through conservation easements and land purchases.

CLC also serves as lead agency for a regional effort known as Carolina Thread Trail, named to reflect the region’s textile heritage, that aims to develop a connected trail that ultimately would stretch over 1,400 miles through 15 counties in the Carolinas.

Launched in 2007 with $17 million from corporations, foundations and individuals to help counties plan and begin building their segments of the Thread, the effort has helped 14 of the 15 counties develop and adopt master plans.

The Thread project, including 113 miles already available for public use, is helping to drive conservation work at CLC, which aims to have protected a total of 50,000 acres in 20 years, Okel says.

Water quality continues to represent a core focus of CLC, which has protected thousands of acres along the Catawba River, the main source of drinking water for the region, and and along the river’s South Fork and numerous lakes in the river system.

CLC over the years also has expanded its work to include preserving farms and wildlife habitat, and connecting people to nature.

Through TreesCharlotte, a public-private partnership that aims to plant 25,000 trees a year to increase the city’s “tree canopy” to 50 percent of the city by 2050 from 46 percent today, currently the highest in the U.S., CLC in the most recent year managed the NeighborWoods initiative that planted over 1,000 trees, mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

And in 2011, CLC handled 10 conservation projects, including six that will include segments of the Thread Trail.

Completing the Thread, which initially was projected to total 500 miles and cost $140 million, likely will cost much more because communities have identified much more trail that needs to be built, Okel says.

CLC, which raises money both for the trail and for its own work, last year posted a 30 percent increase in its development revenue.

And for the second straight year, Duke Energy has agreed to give $50,000 to match other donations.

A key goal of the Thread project is to “tie together counties and towns on a common project,” Okel says, “and to leave a lasting asset to define the communities.”

Conservation Network stepping up advocacy role

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last year, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central lampooned a bill introduced by a North Carolina state lawmaker to bar the state Coastal Resources Commission from defining rates of sea-level changes for regulatory purposes.

“The bill as originally introduced was written in a way that seemed to indicate the legislature was mandating that the oceans not rise,” says Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network. “They scaled back the bill, but they essentially put their heads in the sand.”

The bill, and the national publicity, helped drive a surge in the number of citizens who subscribe to a weekly email public alert from Conservation Network to 25,000 from 14,000, and in the number of its Facebook friends to 10,000 from 4,000.

Now, seeing serious threats to the environment and to environmental policy in the areas of air quality and energy, water quality and quantity, and land conservation and open space, the Conservation Network is expanding its staff to strengthen its community organizing and communications.

A growing number of policy decisions “are taking the last three to four decades of a very balanced approach of environmental protection and economic development,” Buzby says, “and throwing that out the window.”

Formed in 1998 and operating with an annual budget of $800,000 and a staff of eight people, the Conservation Network serves nearly 100 affiliate environmental groups throughout the state.

It communicates with its member groups every day by email, phone or in person, distributes a weekly email message to its 25,000 activist subscribers on a current topic they can act on, and posts daily Facebook updates on campaigns it is waging on issues, inviting people to get involved.

The Network’s use of social media includes raising awareness about new studies and breaking news about the environment, as well as celebrating North Carolina’s environment.

The organization generates 40 percent of its revenue through contributions, 31 percent from grants, 12 percent from contracts, 9 percent from affiliate dues, 6 percent from an online auction, and 2 percent from investment interest and miscellaneous sources.

The auction, which raised $20,000 last fall, has grown by inviting affiliates and activists to donate items, such as the use of their beach houses or their business services, an approach that Buzby says not only generates more revenue but helps the Network better engage and know its supporters.

And with the environment facing critical challenges, Buzby says, the role of advocacy has becoming increasingly important.

A report last year by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimated, conservatively, that the state is home to over 15,200 clean energy jobs at 1,100 companies in 86 of the state’s 100 counties and that those companies generate over $3.7 billion in annual revenues, he says.

“North Carolina has had a long history of working hard and working together to balance environmental protection with a strong economy, and creating a state where businesses want to come and people want to move, because it has a reputation of a strong education system, good jobs and a clean environment,” he says.

“But what we’re seeing in the past few years, and it seems to be accelerating, is that we are moving back to the old paradigm of jobs versus the environment,” he says. “And that’s really not how the world works.”