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How Woodland Trust branched out to raise £11m

Karl Mitchell,Woodland Trust

In a saturated market, how do you make your project stand out from the crowd? For the Woodland Trust, it involved looking beyond their traditional supporter base. So far they have raised more than half of their £20m target, with two years still to go. Here’s how they did it


Our fundraising needs have changed drastically over the last 20 years. Arguably, the UK’s trees and woods have never been more vulnerable than they are now. They face many threats – such as development, invasive pests and diseases like ash dieback. There’s a lot of woodland that needs our care and protection, especially ancient woodland. And we need to plant more trees; woodland cover in England stands at just 10%, which is pretty abysmal compared to some of our European neighbours. Coupled with the level of woodland cut down every year, we are dangerously close to deforestation.


Since humble beginnings in 1972, we’ve grown from strength to strength. With the help of our 200,000 loyal members we’ve been successful in championing the rights of native woods and trees, and given trees and woods a stronger voice in the world of conservation.


It is tree planting that has driven some of our biggest fundraising projects - we’ve planted 32 million to date. Putting saplings into the ground is a simple and inclusive concept that everyone can see the value of. We’re creating green spaces for people and wildlife. To do this, we have galvanised communities – helping them to rejuvenate their local environments. UK-wide creation projects have helped us transform the landscape, and given the public a sense of ownership over what we do.


Planting fresh ideas


In 2012, we set about planning our next woodland creation project. One idea was to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, as it linked to a nationwide point of interest. We felt trees would be a very fitting way to commemorate the bravery of those involved in the First World War, and we saw the woods as a relevant memorial that could grow over the years for future generations, becoming a thriving habitat for wildlife. As we researched further, we also realised that trees played a part in wartime life – both in the trenches and at home.


As our project focus had national relevance, we set our sights on high targets. We wanted to create a woodland in each of the four UK nations, and between these sites we would plant hundreds of thousands of trees and areas of wildflower meadows. And by using free tree school and community packs, we aimed to plant millions of trees across the UK, giving everyone the chance to create a space for commemoration.


To do all of this, we estimated we needed to raise £20min total.


Of course, these are huge figures, which posed a challenge in itself. However, what we quickly realised is that we are just one of many charities and organisations seeking to commemorate the First World War. The media and fundraising world is saturated with centenary projects and we needed to think outside of the box, and fast.


Cultivating relationships by working differently


We started by looking at our existing relationships and how we could develop them. We’ve had a longstanding partnership with Sainsbury’s, as they had previously worked with us on our Jubilee Woods project, and we continue to receive donations from their woodland eggs, chickens and turkeys. We involved Sainsbury’s in talks about Centenary Woods in the very early stages, and made them part of our planning procedures. As a result, they have become lead partners for the project, pledging to contribute £4m between 2014 and 2018.


We also continued to work with individual donors. We learnt that sometimes the link between war, commemoration and trees was unclear, so we worked hard to bring our sites to life. This was through a hands-on approach; giving tours of the sites we were purchasing, and telling stories that highlighted the poignancy of creating woodland for those who fought in the war (for example, the woods in our site in Surrey were actually used as a training ground during the war). This specialist touch helped to generate meaningful conversations with individuals.


We also communicated with the landowning community in a similar way. We aimed to get 100 landowners creating a memorial wood of their own. To do this, we engaged our woodland creation advisors in reaching out to their contacts. By visiting sites and communicating on a one-to-one basis, we were able to discuss why and how the planting could be done, and the ways we could help facilitate. This is starting to gather momentum, with nearly 20% of our target reached.


Breaking new ground


Previously, our planting projects had been simpler and easier to promote. Diamond Jubilee Woods was planted to celebrate the Queen’s time on the throne. Then when we took on sites like Heartwood Forest, near St Albans, the chance to have half a million trees planted entirely by volunteers was an opportunity for everyone to get stuck in.


Commemorating lives lost a century ago is different. The sheer scale of the project and its unique focus meant that seeking new supporter audiences was vital.


One partnership we developed in an attempt to do this was with Find My Past, an online service that allows people to research their family tree. We wanted to enable people to dedicate trees to their ancestors; but how could they do this for ancestors they did not know existed? One specific angle we took with this was inspiring our staff and volunteers to research their family, so that they could share their findings. It was hoped that this would help us reach people with an interest in history, who might then pay to dedicate a tree to a family member.


We also developed contacts with the Royal Naval Association (RNA) to commemorate the Battle of Jutland, where 6,097 British naval personnel lost their lives. We’ve worked with the RNA to communicate with their contacts, in the hope that they would donate towards a six acre memorial at Langley Vale Wood, Surrey. So far we’ve raised over a third of the money required to do so.


Another move was to partner with the National Football Museum. The For Club and Country project is a chance to help club football supporters plant trees for football heroes who went to the trenches. It has already received support from Sir Trevor Brooking in a film about the project.


However, in this we entered unknown territory, as we usually speak to audiences who love nature – but now we were focusing on people’s passion for sport. How to reach these fans has been a learning process, and we are still a long way from our targets. However, we’re exploring options (such as featuring in match day materials) so we can speak more directly with football clubs and their supporters.


Putting down roots: new supporter journeys


Trying to engage new audiences who were cold to our cause was always going to require a lot of thought. Creating new journeys for potential supporters was essential in leading them towards support for the project.  


When commemorating the Battle of Verdun in 2016, we offered the public free Verdun badges. They were then invited to be part of a nationwide tree hunt to find oaks grown from acorns collected in Verdun. This quirky project led to 17,000 individuals signing up and gave us a platform from which to communicate more about the project as a whole.


We have also worked with the organisation Remember WW1, which is focused on community volunteering. By sharing trust-led opportunities like our tree planting days, we were able to reach a wider range of people who could donate their time to Centenary Woods, and then be introduced to wider elements of the project.  


Sowing seeds for the future


In summary, the trust has had to think innovatively and interact with new groups of people on the First World War Centenary Woods project. However, with just under two years until the project ends in 2018, we’ve already raised more than £11m, and we feel positive about our future plans.


So, don’t be afraid of doing something out of the ordinary and takings risks. There are valuable lessons to be learned and friendships to be made with new projects. Who have you never spoken to before? Is there an unknown link or angle that you have not yet explored? If the Woodland Trust can start talking to football fans and genealogists, who knows where your work can take you?  


Karl Mitchell is director of fundraising at the Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity

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