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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Planning a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Fundraising Tips
Water Trail Toolbox: Fundraising Tips

Building a water trail takes money. Before launching a campaign to get the money, make sure you have a sound business plan and fundraising plan. The business plan will give you an idea how much it will cost to build and maintain the trail year after year. The fundraising plan will delineate a variety of ways to approach potential donors. State economic development offices and university business schools can help you draft these plans.

Figure your costs realistically. Building an access point or campsite with volunteers will still cost some money for materials, transportation expenses, and professional advice. Be realistic about your costs and even factor in a percentage for cost overruns.

Establish short-term and long-term development goals. Some donors may respond to a practical, easy-to-accomplish project. Others may respond to the vision of establishing the overall water trail.

Before asking for your first dollar, attain a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status so you can be eligible to receive funds. For information, see the Internal Revenue Service's Publication #557, “Tax Exempt Status for Your Organization,” ( ).

Pursue all Funding Sources

Start your fundraising campaign close to home and seek out a variety of sources, so your organization does not become dependent on one revenue stream.

Local municipalities, civic groups, businesses, and interested individuals are potential contributors of money and in-kind products, services, and labor. A construction company might be willing to provide equipment or gravel at cost, or free, and save you thousands of dollars in constructing a campsite.

Be creative. Have some fun. Stage a regatta or hold an auction. Such events can net hundreds or thousands of dollars—and cultivate grassroots support for your water trail. The River Network ( ) provides advice on initiating campaigns close to home.

Then, broaden your fundraising appeals. Talk with conservation partners and other groups about local, state, and federal funding opportunities. Investigate the possibility of obtaining grants from nonprofit organizations, private family foundations, and state agencies. Your state trails organization, for instance, probably dispenses federal funds through the Recreational Trails Program or other programs. Awards are often based on an 80/20 federal/local split.

Government Grants

Several government programs provide funding and/or technical assistance for water trail development, maintenance, and related projects. The process, however, usually takes more research, partnership building, and paperwork than it does to apply for a foundation grant or corporate donation.

Many government grants include a “cooperative agreement” or contract that may require you to complete the project at a specific point in time. Some government grants will not be paid until “the deliverables” are received. Can you wait to be reimbursed?

Government grants can be great sources of funding if you have a specific project and you can make a compelling case that you can deliver on your promises.

Federal Government Grants— Generally, at the federal level, opportunities for grants are few.

The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, provides a variety of support for water trails, including funding for development of water trail maps and guides, orientation and interpretive signage, development of new and inproved access to water trails, and preparation of management and stewardship plans.

Water trails are eligible for funding under the TEA-21 Recreational Trails Program, but they have not received meaningful support from this program or other federal funding sources. Other federal agencies that may provide grants include National Fish & Wildlife Service/The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The National Parks Service Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance program provides in-kind support and technical assistance.

State Government Grants— At the state level, focus your energies on Fish and Boat Commissions, RC&D Councils, and inter-jurisdictional agencies.

The following state agencies also are involved in the development of water trails: the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Local Government Grants— Many local and regional governments are also excellent sources of funding, and they often require less paperwork than federal and state agencies. For information about these grants, contact city and county executive offices and parks and recreation agencies.

Your U.S. congressman, state representative, and local elected officials can be of great help in obtaining government grants. They can set up meetings with the appropriate officials and help explain why your project will benefit the community. Keep them up to date on the progress of your project and be sure to invite them to speak at ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Corporate Sponsorships

Locally owned businesses, large corporations with a presence near your water trail, and companies with products and services related to water trails are all prospects to become sponsors for the trail or a specific trail project. Besides providing funds, corporate sponsorships can broaden your organization's visibility within the community, provide access to resources, and help you stay in touch with community leaders. Contact your local chamber of commerce and the state department of commerce for directories of local and regional commercial enterprises.

Benefits to Business— Many nonprofit organizations have a business membership or sponsorship program that works like a major donor program. Businesses contribute at certain levels and receive benefits such as personal communications and visits; recognition on your web page or brochure; and special invitations to water trail events.

Other businesses may wish to make in-kind donations of equipment, labor, and materials. Some businesses may give the organization a percentage of sales. Keep an open mind and develop a mutually satisfying relationship.

Developing Corporate Support— Here are a few tips on how to develop a corporate sponsorship program:

  • Prepare a strong, one-page statement about your organization's mission and objectives.
  • Produce a brochure or picture book that eloquently illustrates your organization's vision for the water trail.
  • Establish an industry leadership committee, if possible, to help raise funds.
  • Make a list of prospective sponsors—and meet with them individually.

Foundation Grants

Foundations can be key elements in a successful fundraising campaign for a water trail. These nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations primarily make grants to other nonprofit groups for educational, environmental, and a host of other civic purposes.

Some are small, and some have billion dollar endowments. Most foundations have specific issues—such as health, the environment, wildlife, education—and other qualifications governing their grants. Some foundation grants are restricted to certain geographical areas, so a foundation in your immediate area might be a good prospect. With any foundation, make sure your project fits with its mission.

For additional information about funding opportunities from foundations, visit River Network Partner Grants, Environmental Support Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Tom's of Maine small grants program, The Foundation Center, and the Support Center.

New York , San Francisco , and Washington , D.C. , and its Finding Funders directory offers links to private foundations, corporate-giving programs and other sources of nonprofit funding. The Support Center has an expansive, searchable database dedicated to funding resources.

Other Nonprofit Sources

Some nonprofit organizations administer grants from federal, state, corporate, or private sources. For example, the River Network administers the Watershed Assistance Grants (WAG) program funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, and The Conservation Fund administers the Kodak American Greenways Awards, established by Kodak in partnership with The Conservation Fund and the National Geographic Society.

Membership Campaigns

Membership programs bring recognition and strength to your water trails organization—and a diversified funding base. Membership programs can help you identify potential large donors, volunteers, future board members, and in-kind contributors. They provide you with a group of people who may have good ideas for your water trail and organization.

There are many ways to increase membership: special events, newsletters, magazine advertisements, face-to-face requests, word of mouth, email, web page, speaking engagements, telephone calls, and booths at festivals, boat shows, and access points.

Members can provide you with a base of volunteers, valuable contacts and networking opportunities, an informed base from which to draw board members, and a source of fresh ideas. Membership campaigns can provide a solid source of funds if managed well, and a solid source of headaches if not.

A successful membership system requires: a computer, versatile database, skilled operator, and communications tools such as a newsletter, website, or brochure, plus a marketing plan and lots of time. These requirements require skill and devotion and cost money to develop and maintain. Be cautious before choosing this option. The costs of maintaining your membership database may equal the income received from their membership fees. Consider establishing a major donor category for membership, such as those who will give $100 or more.

Donors generally give large gifts to an organization because they are able to do so, they have been asked to do so, and they feel a personal connection with the organization. Develop a personal relationship with major donors is a key to success! .

Direct Mail

Most young water trail organizations find that small membership appeals created in-house and sent to people who have participated in trail events can be more effective and less costly than a large direct mail campaign. Make an effort at every trail meeting and event to collect names and addresses, so you can make such a mailing. Otherwise, ask another like-minded organization in your area if you can use or rent its list. Make the letter as personal as possible, and include a stamped response card or envelope.

Using direct mail is the most effective and common way to dramatically increase membership for older, larger nonprofit organizations. Direct mail programs can be costly up front and require a long-term commitment to be profitable, so make sure this is how you want to use your funds, staff, and board before investing in such a campaign.

A direct mail campaign is probably not the way to fix a current financial problem, because results take time, often years. For every 1,000 pieces you mail, you may get only 10 to 30 members. Will you receive enough money to cover your printing and mailing expenses and fees to rent lists from other organizations or list brokers?

Fundraising Events

Events can be an enjoyable way to raise funds and visibility for your water trail whether you are just starting or are well established. You also have a great venue: your water trail! A paddle trip is a popular way to celebrate water trails, gain media attention, engage the community, and yes, even raise funds. Some organizations hold annual auctions to raise funds. A sojourn, typically a multi-day paddling event, is an increasingly popular way to publicize water trails and the fun of spending time on a river.

For additional information about waterway sojourns and excursions, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, or thePennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers has a Sojourn Organizers guide on their website.

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