Creating a Strategic Donation Plan for a Dark Sky Organization

The organization Dark Skies, Inc. of the Wet Mountain Valley (Colorado) was incorporated in 1999 and in 2015 the two adjoining towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as a Dark Sky Community. Much of its success is the result of strong monetary support by the local population, which is only about 4,000 county-wide. We are very fortunate that a local foundation was created to support non-profits by conducting a singular annual fund drive, the Spirit Campaign. It also provides matching funds, typically at about the rate of 25%, that encourages many to give at a higher level. Dark Skies is often in the top 10 of the ranking by dollar amount in the Spirit Campaign. Thus we have developed some long-term giving techniques that work very well. Even using our techniques, it might take a new organization several years to develop a loyal base that provides steady monetary support. Note: if your group trying to develop a campaign drive for a specific project, like retrofitting an entire community’s streetlights, then some of the long-term actions in Action #10 below are not applicable.

Overview:

Most people in making a decision to support a non-profit organization will want to see that most, if not all, of the following have been implemented: long term stability, successful projects, worthy goals, good money management and record keeping, an easy online donation process, and strong public support.

Specific Actions in Timeline Order:

  1. Register the organization with the state government as a corporation that will give it the image of being formally structured and stable. Also, it may protect its members from personal liability while performing their duties.

  2. Register with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that will add to the image of being legitimate plus donations may be tax deductible for state and federal filings.

  3. Develop a website that not only includes the usual information about the organization, but specifically includes a mission statement (see item #4), a donations page using a service like PayPal, and an events calendar page. We use Squarespace.com that is free, has a PayPal connection, and its calendar page automatically moves out-of-date events to the bottom of the page.

  4. Develop a clear, short mission statement that indicates worthy goals that will appeal to many who have a concern for the environment. Example: (organization’s name) will seek to protect the natural night environment from the effects of light pollution by providing light shields or replacement fixtures for problematic light fixtures and replacements will be more energy efficient.

  5. Develop Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts so that events can be given timely announcements and updates. It will also allow the public to comment on them for feedback.

  6. Develop an email distribution system to send out periodic newsletters and reminders for making donations, attending events, etc. We use MailChimp which is free and easy to work with. To collect email addresses, see item #7.

  7. Hold free public events like star parties (seek the help of a local astronomy club) and presentations about interesting night sky subjects that include a brief description of what light pollution is and how it can be corrected. A display with shielded and unshielded fixtures that can be turned on individually in a darken room is very effective. During the events, pass around an email sign-up form.

  8. Identify a business, school, or government building that has particularly bad, glaring lights and approach the owner/manager about the group replacing them for free as a first project. Whether or not this is a big or small project is a matter of judgment — are there sufficient funds on hand for a limited project or is there sufficient demonstrated support for going big. We were daring in replacing all four dozen streetlights in one town as a first project. The resulting donation drive was a success. If it had failed, the consequences for the organization’s future were uncertain.
    But by limiting this first effort to a small number of fixtures, they could perhaps be funded by organization members. Regardless of the size of the project, arrange for the installation by a licensed electrician while being sure to take before and after photos. When ready to light the first time, invite local newspaper and TV reporters to cover the story. If the owner/manager is happy with the change, get it on video so it can be used on the website.

  9. With a first successful project to highlight, announce through the website, social media accounts, and email newsletter a fund drive for a specific larger project that has costs, timeline, etc. established so that possible donators know what they are being asked to finance. Keep a spreadsheet of who responds and how much they give so that as time goes by, non-givers can be purged from the list.

  10. Time the donation campaigns to begin about the first of December as most people will be thinking about year-end tax decisions at that point.

  11. If the larger project is a success, then develop more but not too quickly — think in terms of next year or even two so as not to ask the same donors too often.

  12. Develop ongoing efforts to keep the organization and its mission in people’s minds. We ask the local media to cover many of these efforts. Here are some that we have done for more than a decade:
    •We negotiated with the local newspaper for an annual block of ads that cover basic light pollution topics and announce upcoming events. We have a contract for 25 ads in four different sizes and either B&W or color that the advertising director selects from a set of stock ads we’ve created.
    •We work with an elementary school art teacher to have a class contest to paint their version of what the night sky looks like to them and the winner’s art is used in large color ads in the newspaper. Plus they receive a small gift certificate to a local restaurant. A presentation is given to the students on light pollution and preserving the night sky before they start their art project.
    •We let other local organizations know that we have speakers available to give a presentation at their meetings. This can lead to coordinated efforts for solving particular light pollution installations that need fixing.
    •We have two members who write a weekly newspaper column, Celestial Exploring, about astronomy topics including ones that are timely like meteor showers, planets visible during the early evening, interesting small telescopic objects, light pollution, etc.
    •We ask to be included in local tourism websites, calendar of events, brochures, etc. and provide interesting photographs taken by local astro photographers.
    •We ask the county zoning office to hand out a pamphlet on the differences in light fixtures and their energy efficiencies in their regulations packet. The IDA has a number of brochures available for free from their website.
    •We have a “Speaker Series” where experts in astronomy, space flight, astrophotography, etc. do free public presentations.
    •Finally, our most visible public outreach effort is a public observatory, named after our first president, Smokey Jack. It can be individually reserved and is the site for a series of public star parties in the warmer months.

With this process well ingrained in the local mindset, we just have to keep it active to get strong public support. Since most of the light pollution issues have been taken care of by our efforts since 1999, we are now turning to new public outreach efforts by expanding the capacity of the Smokey Jack Observatory observing area, which will draw more visitors to the local economy. And we have created STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) scholarships for local high school seniors. Oh, and then there’s our clothing line of t-shirts and hoodies for sale by several local merchants.

In closing, some general advice to be successful in meeting your mission goals besides having a good donation drive:

  1. Some person (people) within the non-profit needs to provide the strong leadership to get these working points activated and accomplished, and to get very involved in the body politic to advocate and lobby for the goals and programs desired. Without these two aspects, not much gets accomplished and funding dries up.

  2. Use a non-confrontational approach in all contact with the public, business owners, and governmental officials. If you get an immediate negative reaction when introducing the subjects of light pollution and preserving the natural night sky, it’s best to bring the conversation to a quick close and back out of the situation.

  3. Avoid using negative words when talking about polluting light fixtures. Referring to a light as “bad” will often result in a defensive reaction. Especially avoid negative wording when addressing children as they may tell their parents. If the family has a light like you described, the adults may become upset with this information. It’s best to use neutral language like “non-shielded” and “less energy efficient” to describe problematic fixture designs.

  4. Do use a personal friendly approach whenever possible such as handwritten “Thank You” notes to donors. Notes can also used to honor those who changed their lights voluntarily and paid the cost. This is how people are won over to the mission -- one person at a time.

  5. Do make use of local events where your organization operates a booth to distribute brochures and meet people. Home improvement shows are especially good choices.

In spite of  not  having a specific campaign project or goal, Dark Skies has averaged about $10,000 annually since 2015. Only one email notice and one newspaper advertisement were used. This demonstrates the value of a long-term approach to soliciting donations. The STEM scholarship campaign was new for this year.

In spite of not having a specific campaign project or goal, Dark Skies has averaged about $10,000 annually since 2015. Only one email notice and one newspaper advertisement were used. This demonstrates the value of a long-term approach to soliciting donations. The STEM scholarship campaign was new for this year.

For more about our history, visit the IDA website at www.darksky.org and search on “Westcliffe.” Once on our page, look for the list of document links that include our original 2015 certification application and annual reports.

Compiled by Dark Skies, Inc. member Ed Stewart with assistance by fellow members: Jim Bradburn, Sam Frostman, Steve Linderer, and Wilson Jarvis.
Copyright 2019 Dark Skies