Philanthropic roots yielding fruit at ESA’s meeting

Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke

July 29, 2019

Headshot of 2018-2019 ESA President Laura HuennekeAs I’ve written here previously, the Ecological Society of America works hard to manage its financial resources for the broadest possible benefit of its members. We strive to keep dues, meeting registration fees, and the cost of our services as low as possible to maximize access and value. Grants from governmental and foundation sources can support additional offerings. But in order to “stretch” to long-range goals, or test promising ideas, we find that the generosity of individual donors can be an essential resource. What does this (largely unheralded) philanthropy provide to ESA? How does the Society think about and manage these relationships? Some of the outcomes will be quite visible at this year’s Annual Meeting – and I’d encourage all our members to be aware of them and of the generosity behind them.

Historically, the Society has received many gifts made in honor of distinguished ecologists and valued colleagues. These donations from family and friends established endowments that continue to serve as memorials and as the basis of our awards program. The prizes and awards made each year from the yield of these endowments allow us to celebrate some of the major figures of our past while recognizing the accomplishments of our current members. For example, the annual MacArthur Award and Lecture, recognizing contributions to ecology by a mid-career scientist, is supported by a designated fund established to honor Robert H. MacArthur. Another philanthropic gesture that has supported many ESA members over the years is the Real – Brown Fund that gives up to $3600 in travel awards, paid for by royalties from sale of the well-known “Foundations of Ecology” book (no longer in print, alas).

For many years the primary “ask” that ESA made each year to members was simply the set of checkboxes on the membership renewal form, listing the various award funds so that members might choose to donate in association with their renewals and subscriptions. Approaching the year 2000, ESA began a more formal annual giving campaign, asking for donations to support an unrestricted fund that might provide the Society with invaluable flexible dollars for piloting or implementing new opportunities. This “Millennium Fund” helped support several small conferences on targeted topics and to jump-start various other opportunities. In more recent years that annual giving effort has morphed into an annual appeal for both the Opportunity Fund and the SEEDS support fund.

As I mentioned in my July blog post, many of you have been responsive to a call for donations to help some members travel to this year’s annual meeting in Louisville. ESA has been able to increase the balance in the Opportunity Fund to $35,000 and make it available to help with diversity and access for the Louisville meeting. We were grateful to see the response: thanks to the generosity of members, were able to award 80 additional travel grants, supplementing those already supported by grants and donations related to SEEDS and others by ESA sections and chapters. (Which reminds me – I always enjoy seeing and supporting the creativity and energy of sections and chapters raising funds at the meeting, from the sales of tee shirts and bags and photos to the long-standing silent auction of donated items by the Plant Population Biology section.)

Naturally, any talk about private giving from members is a fraught subject. Ecology isn’t the most lucrative of professions, many of our members are early career and not necessarily in stable financial position, and many of us are employed by other organizations (universities and colleges, NGOs) themselves focused on raising gift funds. But many of us might be in a position to help someone else – from supporting early-career or student travel to giving the Society a little breathing room to try something innovative. While we academics always understand the appeal of funding people through scholarships, we should think about other kinds of support that make a tremendous difference – from SEEDS research fellowships to our newer awards. A particular focus right now is building on the generous start made in establishing the Henry Gholz endowment for SEEDS field trips.

ESA has not generally invested in “advancement” or development (fundraising) as a huge emphasis, relying instead mostly on the intrinsic motivation and generosity of our members. The Governing Board has suggested to Executive Director Catherine O’Riordan that the Society might make some more focused and creative efforts, through clear messaging, targeted priorities, and increased use of new technologies. We’ll be launching a text-to-give campaign at this year’s meeting, for example, to raise funds for the Henry L. Gholz National Field Trip Endowment. Finally, we are also keeping a much sharper focus on stewardship, working to be more consistent and accurate in thanking those who have donated. We are well aware of how important it is to donors that their gifts are recognized.

Even early in my career, when funds were tight, I really enjoyed being able to support a worthy cause. And having been on both the donor and the fundraiser side of the relationship in my academic roles, I’ve become far more appreciative of the difference that individual generosity can make for an organization – really, for the people that organization supports. I’ve given to SEEDS over the years, for example, because I know how transformational the experiences can be for individuals, and because it is so satisfying to see our SEEDS students bring their voices into science and back to their communities. I hope many of you will join me in thanking ESA donors for the results we see each year, and then join me and those donors in making even greater results possible in the future.


Laura F. Huenneke