John Rogers lives far from Minnesota, but he opened his wallet to donate $25 during the state’s unofficial “giving holiday.”
The 65-year-old New Mexico resident, inspired by a weeklong canoe trip in northern Minnesota last spring, made his first-ever gift to the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a nonprofit that opposes mining proposals near the wilderness area and does trail maintenance, among other programs. It’s part of an increase in his donations this year to nonprofits that protect the environment.
“It’s under attack,” Rogers said. “I just think it’s something that should be preserved.”
Environmental organizations nationwide are seeing a surge in charitable giving. In Minnesota, two nonprofits backing Boundary Waters conservation hit records for donations during November’s online giving blitz, Give to the Max Day, while nonprofits such as the Minnesota Land Trust, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and MN350 all report upticks in donations.
Leaders of those groups say people are looking for local solutions to national or global issues, from clean water and climate change to the rollback of regulations under the Trump administration that weakened protections for places like Bears Ears National Monument. Now, the 2020 election is further heightening the drive to donate.
“People see this as an urgent need and they’re called to give,” said Tom Landwehr, the former head of the state Department of Natural Resources who leads the Save the Boundary Waters campaign. “The state of the environment is worse.”
Charitable giving last year to environmental and animal organizations increased by nearly 4%, reaching an all-time high in 2018, according to the annual Giving USA report. Giving to religion, education, health and the arts, among other categories, declined or stayed flat. While those categories draw more money overall, Anna Pruitt, managing editor of Giving USA, said environmental and animal welfare nonprofits have “experienced rapid growth,” with five consecutive years of giving increases.
With decisions looming on the 2020 election and high-profile local issues — from the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline to the PolyMet and Twin Metals mining proposals in northern Minnesota — environmental groups are stepping up fundraising and advocacy.
“When it comes to our environment, there’s a heightened level of anxiety,” said Brett Benson, a spokesman for MN350, a climate change group that also had a record number of donations on Give to the Max Day and has had more donors overall this year. “This will be a watershed year nationally. And because of all those local issues, Minnesota is poised to be a linchpin.”
Conservationists With Common Sense, a Virginia, Minn.-based nonprofit that advocates for mining, receives less than $25,000 a year in contributions and is therefore exempt from filing tax forms with the state Attorney General’s Office. The group’s president, Nancy McReady, said it’s a “David and Goliath situation” in terms of fundraising vs. the two Boundary Waters groups, “but we’re going to keep on plugging.”
The divisive debates over mining and climate change have become deeply political.
Tax-exempt nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status can’t support or oppose candidates for office or use assets to contribute to a political campaign — rules that apply no matter the cause, from Planned Parenthood to conservative groups like the Center of the American Experiment. But some nonprofits have separate advocacy arms that can endorse candidates, raise money for political campaigns or do unlimited lobbying.
The Friends of the Boundary Waters exceeded its fundraising goal on Give to the Max Day, collecting almost $200,000 from more than 1,000 donors — nearly half donated through GiveMN’s site while the rest gave directly to the nonprofit to avoid GiveMN’s 6.9% fee. That’s nearly double what the nonprofit raised on the giving day in 2018 and more than four times the amount in 2017. A third of donors, development director Mike Linnemann added, gave to the group for the first time.
“There is an uptick [in donations] without us really expanding marketing efforts,” Linnemann said. “We’re in the news; our issues are very, very prominent.”
The Save the Boundary Waters Campaign, which is part of the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness nonprofit, drew a record $228,000 on the giving day — more money than the nonprofit raised at its gala after the event’s expenses. In August, a first-ever benefit concert in Duluth brought in $10,000.
Half its 8,400 donors this year were new donors to the organization, Landwehr said, adding that he hasn’t noticed any change in giving after the federal tax law change that roughly doubled the standard deduction for couples to $24,000. He said he expects donations to rise in 2020 because of the mining issue’s heightened visibility and interest in the election.
His nonprofit, like many environmental groups, relies more on individual giving than foundation grants. But at the Minneapolis Foundation, grants given to environmental nonprofits nationwide jumped from $1.8 million in 2014 to $4.9 million in 2019, driven by donors’ preferences. Paul Odegaard, one of the foundation’s philanthropic advisers, said donors aren’t shifting giving from arts organizations or other areas, but instead just adding giving to environmental groups.
More work to do
Rogers, a retired university administrator originally from Iowa, was invited to a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada in May.
Despite black flies and cool weather, Rogers said he left his first trip impressed by the quiet, remote area similar to the silent, isolated parts of the Southwest, where he lives in a suburb of Albuquerque.
“It’s such a unique experience,” he said, adding that coming from the desert was jarring. “When I saw all that water, it was amazing.”
Six months later, when the Friends of the Boundary Waters asked for donations on Give to the Max Day, Rogers’ brother-in-law forwarded the e-mail to him. Rogers had seen pro-mining signs in Ely and decided to “vote” with his checkbook. It’s part of an increase in his donations this year, he said, spending about $150 on three or four nonprofits spurred by the federal changes to environmental protections.
In St. Paul at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, contributions are projected to top last year’s $1.7 million. The nonprofit said it has attracted donations from 500 new households — a record number of new donors — and more than doubled its haul from an annual gala without doing anything new. The increase in support to environmental groups is encouraging, said CEO Kathryn Hoffman, but the work and ambitions of these nonprofits is also increasing.
“There’s just so much more we need to do,” she said. “Environmental nonprofits are up against tough forces. We’re counting on our donors to keep coming through for us.”