Conservation Fundraising Meets the Era of AI | ANA

Conservation Fundraising Meets the Era of AI

As the need for conservation grows more dire, environmental nonprofits are using new tech and strategies to gain ground

Jim Frazier/

Addressing the world's most pressing environmental challenges has never been more urgent. For instance, a report released last year by UN Climate Change found that the climate action plans developed by nations around the globe were not sufficient enough to meet the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather, species extinction, and decreased food production are increasingly obvious across the world. And at a time when the need to act aggressively to address climate change and promote conservation is especially acute, many environmental nonprofits are struggling to raise the necessary funds.

"Worries about the economy experiencing a recession have eased, but high inflation does reduce the disposable income available to donors," says Roisin Florence, director of development at ANA member the Georgia Aquarium, an organization committed to inspiring awareness and preservation of our ocean and aquatic animals worldwide. "As a result, many nonprofits are reporting a decrease in both the number of individual donors and in the amounts donated."

To be sure, the challenging fundraising landscape is not limited to environmental nonprofits. According to data from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP), the fourth quarter of 2023 saw a nearly 3 percent drop in the total number of dollars raised across all sectors of American nonprofits compared to the previous year. The report also noted that donors of all sizes were donating both less frequently and fewer total dollars.

Leveraging New Tools to Connect with Donors

Though the fundraising environment is challenging for nonprofits, many environmental organizations have embraced new strategies and tools that help them forge the strong donor relationships necessary to bring in funds to pursue their important work. At ANA member Ducks Unlimited, an organization that conserves, restores, and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America's waterfowl, that has meant moving from a historical recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) strategy for donor outreach to a model-based segmentation approach.

"With the headwinds we are experiencing in this fundraising environment, our shift to model-based segmentation allowed us to target audiences in a more strategic approach," says Chris Wyatt, former managing director for direct marketing at Ducks Unlimited. The nonprofit paired its new model-based segmentation approach to targeting with a message that has remained constant: that donations are essential to cover the high costs of wetlands conservation and a vibrant membership allows Ducks Unlimited to take advantage of state and federal government programs that match funds. In February of 2024 Ducks Unlimited leveraged its model-based segmentation to drive a 30 percent increase in the average gift size compared to the previous year.

Advanced tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI), are also helping environmental nonprofits build strong and lasting relationships with donors. For example, the Georgia Aquarium struggled in the past with its direct-mail efforts due to a reliance on data that didn't accurately predict who would be most likely to respond to a campaign. However, at the beginning of 2024 the aquarium began using DonorSearch, a tool that uses AI to build models that predict donor behavior. This allowed for a combination of Georgia Aquarium's six million-plus CRM records with DonorSearch data that pinpointed who to engage for annual gifts, major gifts, monthly gifts, and other donation scenarios.

Other environmental nonprofits are leveraging technology to build confidence among donors that their money is making a meaningful difference. Illyasha Peete, who is the CEO and founder of Catalyze and Cultivate Consulting and was chief of equity, justice, and culture at the nonprofit ClimateWorks Foundation, points to Conservation International. "Conservation International leverages advanced technologies such as satellite imagery and data analytics for donor engagement to provide transparent and real-time updates on their projects," Peete says of the organization, which focuses on science, policy, and finance as a strategy to highlight the benefits the natural world delivers to people. "This approach keeps donors informed and deepens their engagement by showing the tangible impact of their contributions."

A Focus on Brand Partnerships

Peete says that brand partnerships are another effective strategy Conservation International uses. Indeed, Conservation International has forged partnerships with Starbucks and HP that provide mutual benefit to its own work and its partners' corporate sustainability goals. "These partnerships," says Peete, referring to Starbucks and HP, "often focus on sustainability projects that align with the corporate goals of their partners, such as forest conservation and sustainable sourcing."

Cultivation of robust brand partnerships is especially important in the current fundraising environment. "Large companies continue to do well in this economy, and the vast majority are charitable and support a variety of initiatives via environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies," says Georgia Aquarium's Florence.

The aquarium's approach to partnerships is to find ways for companies to simultaneously support Georgia Aquarium's mission while providing opportunities for companies to reach its three million annual visitors. There are opportunities to connect brands to Georgia Aquarium's three core mission areas: education, research and conservation, and its Military Salute program.

For example, the Home Depot Foundation sponsors opportunities for wounded service members to swim and dive in the aquarium's 6.3 million-gallon salt-water Ocean Voyager gallery built by The Home Depot and cage-dive in the Sharks! Predators of the Deep gallery as part of their therapy. "Another partner, Truist, is especially focused on serving the financial needs of small business, so we have highlighted those efforts and have featured products from some of these businesses in our gift shop," says Dan Dipiazzo, the chief marketing and experience officer at the Georgia Aquarium.

Around the release of the live-action film The Little Mermaid in 2023, the aquarium partnered with Disney and Spotify. The aquarium used its coral reef habitat as the backdrop for guest photo-ops that recreated the well-known image of Ariel featured on the movie poster. "The display also included a QR code to download the movie's playlist from Spotify and we played sound of coral from the Great Barrier Reef in the exhibit to create an immersive experience," Dipiazzo says. "This was really engaging for our guests, and also connected the aquarium to a moment in pop culture."

At Ducks Unlimited, brand partnerships are varied. In some instances, Ducks Unlimited is a solution provider to help companies achieve their specific conservation goals. Partnerships can also take the form of cross-promotion of events that raise funds for conservation and expose the organization's donor-base to relevant brands. For example, Ducks Unlimited partnered with Bass Pro Shops for a sweepstakes to attend Garth Brooks: A Concert for Conservation, a one-night-only event in Las Vegas early in 2025. "The choice is based on Ducks Unlimited's vital conservation mission, strong value proposition, efficacy, and unique network of loyal consumers and business leaders," Wyatt says.

Though the strategies of conservation nonprofits will inevitably differ, flourishing in the current challenging fundraising environment inevitably means trying new things and adapting. "We are focusing on factors we can control — optimizing our strategies, effectively managing the use of our investments, and encouraging a culture of innovation," Wyatt says.


Chris Warren

Chris Warren has written about everything from the best jazz clubs in Tokyo to B2B marketing. A former editor at Los Angeles magazine, Chris has contributed to National Geographic Traveler, Institutional Investor, and the Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. You can email Chris at

You must be logged in to submit a comment.