Avoiding Donor Drift

Avoiding Donor Drift

Ocean Institute

Kids learning about the ocean

Dana Point, California—On the surface, it can appear as though the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California, has no financial worries. After all, their main function is to host the 110,000 K-12 students who visit the institute on field trips every year.

In fact, the field trips don't begin to cover the costs of keeping up the facilities, caring for the animals, and developing the sixty-one programs centered around marine science, environmental education, and maritime history.

Susan Hoover Miller was recruited by the staff at the Ocean Institute because of her expertise in major gifts, something the organization needed. She arrived just as the organization was about to adopt the Benevon Model, and immediately embraced it.

It didn't take Miller long to recognize a concern. Though the staff, board members, and volunteers were passionate about the work they were doing, they lacked a collective focus.

"When you asked one staff member what we do, you would hear one answer, when you asked another, you would hear a different answer," Miller says.

In addition, the special events fundraising method they were using wasn't successfully connecting donors to the mission of the Ocean Institute.

"We had people coming to events that had major gift ability but they would just drift away. There was rarely an opportunity to build a relationship and ask for major gifts," she says. "The potential to develop and grow a donor base through the Benevon Model was very exciting to me."

Since implementing the Benevon Model, Miller has seen improvement in both the sense of teamwork among employees, board members, and volunteers of the institute, and in their collective ability to form relationships with donors.

Ocean Institute education

"The Benevon training doesn't just invite, they actually require, board members' involvement," she says. "We all hear the same message at the same time. We are all on the same page working as a team, and that can move us forward better than anything else."

Staff, volunteers, and board members at the Ocean Institute are now working together to bring as many people as they can into the organization through its Points of Entry, Ask Events, and Free Feel-Good Cultivation Events.

The team also has a focused approach for interacting and building relationships with donors, rather than letting them "drift away" as they once did. Miller says they rely on their three "buckets" of "education, inspiration, and stewardship" to connect with people.

Ocean Institute educational experiment

One item from the inspiration bucket that she and her team frequently share with donors is the story of a group of fifth graders who came to the institute for a program. They learned about watersheds in their geographic area—how anything that goes down a drain eventually ends up in the ocean. These young people immediately connected to that lesson, and started passing it on to their neighbors. They created a presentation on the subject and were selected to receive an award, given by their city council—an award normally reserved for students at the college level.

"Those fifth graders learned that we can all make a difference," Miller says. "When we share this story, we are appealing to people's hearts. The tendency is to talk about our facilities, but it's the stories that really connect to people's hearts. That's what's going to keep them coming back, not the statistics."

The Ocean Institute is in the final phase of a $4 million capital campaign to create their new Seaside Learning Center, which will have a 300-foot science dock and a 100-foot historic maritime pier. Miller says that her team is continuing to work towards building a major gift program to ensure a higher level of sustainability with their annual fund.

"There is so much potential within this organization," Miller says. "Benevon will be key to reaching that potential."

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