Mountain Sunset



Fund Raising: The Options Available to
Outdoor Programs



Ron Watters
Professor Emeritus of Outdoor Education
Former Director, Idaho State University Outdoor Program


River Scene



Outdoor Stories & Articles

Outdoor Education Major at Idaho State University



Copyright & Revisions:  Original copyright © 1991.  Reformatted in 2013.  No changes made to text.


Publication History: Originally published in:  Proceedings of 1990 Nat ional Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education.  Citation:  Watters, R. (1991). Fund raising:  The options available to outdoor programs.  In Gilbert J., Bruner E. & Harwell, R. (Eds.), Proceedings of 1990 Nat ional Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education.  (pp. 189 - 200).  Oxford: University of Mississippi Press.


Reproduction Information:  You are welcome to provide links to this page or to use short quotations and paraphrases in other documents as long as they appropriately reference the source.  There is no charge for non-profit organizations to reproduce or publish extensive parts or all of this paper, but please obtain advanced permission from Ron Watters (  Photo credits:  Ron Watters. 




Fund raising is an aspect of income generation that many in the outdoor recreation field shrugged off. There's a mistaken feeling out there that fund raising just won't work for outdoor activity programs. That couldn't be further from the truth. To wit: Outward Bound Schools generate ten of thousands of dollars a year for scholarships and programs, the Cornell University Outdoor Education Program received a $160,000 donation to build a climbing wall and another $50,000 to start an equipment outfitting center, and over the past 10 years, the Idaho State University Outdoor Program has brought in nearly one million dollars of outside funds.


There is no one set way of fund raising that works for everyone. You'll need to evaluate and dabble with several methods before settling on some that work well in your situation. For the purposes of this paper, I'll discuss four broad categories: grants, fund raising events, non- cash donations and cash contributions. Each of these categories covers a lot of ground and there are many options to try within each.




Federal and private foundation grants are some of the largest potential sources of funds. But it's not without a catch. To obtain federal grants you will need to adapt an outdoor recreation project to the purposes and guidelines of the grant program, and you will need to commit a large block to time to researching and developing the grant proposal. If you are the kind of person that expresses yourself adequately through writing then federal grants is a natural area to look seriously at.


However, if you are more comfortable on the phone and prefer person to person contacts, then private foundations may be the better choice. With private foundations, you still need a good, short written proposal, but mostly you need to make and maintain personal contacts with individuals within the foundation.





There are several reference books which are useful for locating potential sources of funds. These are:

    Taft Foundation Reporter: Comprehensive Profiles and Giving Analyses of American's Major Private Foundations, The Taft Group, Rockville, MD.


    Taft Corporate Giving Directory: Comprehensive Profiles of Americas Major Corporate Foundations and Corporate Giving Programs, The Taft Group, Rockville, MD.


    The Foundation Directory, The Foundation Center, NY.

    Annual Register of Grant Support: A Directory of Funding Sources, Macmillan Directory Division, IL.




I know of no federal grant program that provides funds for ordinary people to do ordinary recreational things in the outdoors. You'll need to design a project in which outdoor recreation is used as a special and unique component of the grant which helps to obtain greater goals. For instance, federal moneys are available to help improve retention rates of minorities at colleges and universities. You may be able to design a project in which outdoor recreation is the primary medium used accomplish greater retention rates. Federal funds are also available for handicapped recreation. You may be able to design a project in which outdoor recreation services are provided to disabled members of the student body and community.


If these sorts of adaptations to an existing program don't appeal you, then federal grants--and, for the most part, private foundation grants--are not for you. Both federal and private grant sources are set up to provide benefits to society: to help the handicapped, increase equality, improve education and living conditions, rehabilitate problem children, etc. With all the needy causes there just isn't any money left to help run outdoor activities for the general population. That does not mean that there are not other fund raising options--but the choices are more limited. So if grants aren't your bag, skip the next couple of sections and pick up at the "Fund Raising Events" heading.


Once you have located some possible federal grants, you will want to follow several steps. First, check into the due date. Federal grants will have a deadline by which applications must postmarked. Give yourself plenty of time. It's doubtful that you'll be able to put together a grant with a ghost of a chance for funding if you have only two weeks before the deadline.


Write or call the agency responsible for the grant program and request more detailed information and an application packet. When it arrives, read the requirements of the grant and reevaluate whether your idea for the project might work. Feel free to call the contact person at the agency and discuss your proposal with him or her. The representative may be able to give you advice on your proposed project or he or she may suggest that you rethink whether it should be submitted. If after reviewing the material or talking with the grant representative, you decide to give it up, that's fine. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble and time. But keep looking for other grant possibilities that you may work a proposal around.


If your project fits the grant guidelines and has potential, ask the contact person to send a couple of grants from last year's winners and a copy of the evaluation form used by the reviewers. Grants are reviewed by panels of reviewers, and they generally use a evaluation form to score the grants. Their score, along with adjustments at the agency, determine who gets funded or not. Thus, the evaluation form along with sample grants are invaluable guides to help you write your own proposal. I can't re-emphasize how important this step is. It is one of the most important hints that I can pass on about federal grantmanship. A grant writer suggested it to me years ago, and it has made a world of difference.


The next step is to research your project. Do a literature search. If your proposed project is to improve retention rates, then you'll need to know what has been done in the past. You may find that someone has tried outdoor recreation in connection with the grant program. If so, you'll need to come up with a different twist. Grant reviewers are looking for new and innovative ways to solving the problem--not repeats of old methods. Your literature search will give you the background to write with knowledge and authority.


Before doing much writing, sit down with your staff or other people who might be involved. For a retention rate grant, you'll want to include representatives from minority groups, the affirmative action office, or the registrars office. Brain storm ideas. With their collective help you'll likely formulate some new ideas and approaches. After the meeting and while it's still fresh in your mind, make an outline.


Now comes the most demanding part of the process: writing the grant. Find a place away from distractions. Don't worry much about flow or grammar or structure. Using the outline to keep you on track, start putting ideas together one after another on the computer screen. Just keep typing, don't get bogged down on fine points. Refinement, structure and grammar corrections can come once you get the course writing down.


Try to give yourself enough time to put the rough draft aside for a couple days. Something you've written always looks different after its been given a rest. Let others review it. Writing is a lonely craft to a point, but once you get the ideas on paper, a second or third person can catch small errors and flow problems that you'll never see because of your closeness to the work.


It's never a perfect process and it's always eventful.


Anyone who has written a federal grant knows what the final few days are like. On my last grant we were down to the last day, finishing up a few last minuet additions in the appendix. I needed to get it to post office by the 5:00 PM closing in order for it to go out certified mail. At 4:00 PM we rushed to the photocopy center to make the required two copies. As we were in anxiously waiting, Mel, the good natured photocopy operator got involved in telling us a long fishing story and lost track of what he was doing. The machine started sorting the pages wrong, leaving out some key parts of the grant. We all frantically reshuffled the grant, threw it in a box and rushed off to the post office, arriving only two minutes before it closed.




Grants may be organized in different ways, but almost all will include the classic components of well written funding proposal. These components are:


1. Need--There's an overall reason behind every grant proposal, a need that the grant addresses. The need may be the improvement of dismal retention rates of minorities at colleges, or the need may be to provide recreational activities for a segment of the population who lacks opportunity, the disabled. What ever it is, you'll need some facts. For instance, your need statement may say that nationally only 30% of minorities make it past their freshmen year in college (I'm making up these figures). At All American University, these figures are even worse with only a 25% retention rate.


2. Objectives--When you've defined and substantiated the need, describe how you will improve upon the existing conditions through objectives. The objectives must be measurable and specific, and it must relate to the need. For instance, one of your objectives may state: to improve retention rates at All American University from the existing situation of 25% retention rate to a 30% retention rate.


3. Procedure--Discribe how you will accomplish your objectives. This is where you lay out what you will actually do in the grant. For instance, part of your procedure may be to hire a project coordinator. He and the staff, then, will organize an orientation day for all incoming minority freshmen. Periodically, throughout the year, minority students will have a chance to participate in outdoor trips which will include a river trip, ski trip and backpack trip. And so on.


4. Evaluation. How you evaluate your project will be based on the original objectives. Did retention rates improve as you said they would in the first objective? Did they improve as much as you projected? In the evaluation portion of the grant, you need to talk about what tools you will use to collect the information. Have you worked out a system with the university so that this information will be available to you. What kinds of forms will you use to track the progress of participants in the project? You may decide to have participants fill out an evaluation of project so you can improve it the second year, and if so, include a copy.


5. Budget--You'll need to prepare a budget, and its best done early in the process. Talk with the appropriate budget people at your institution for information on salary and benefits. You may also need to allow for something called indirect expense. Colleges and universities charge indirect as a way recouping administrative and overhead expenses. Indirect expense can be substantial, and it is important to know how much it is before you begin work on the grant.


Admittedly, this is a brief description of the parts of a funding proposal. For more details on this and other aspects of grant writing, you may wish to consult the following books: Grants: How to Find Out About Them and What to do Next, Virginia T. White, Penum Press, NY; and Writing Winning Proposals, Judith Mirick Gooch, The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Washington DC.





Funding from private foundations requires a different approach from federal grants. Personal contact is the key here. When reviewing the possibilities, your best bet is to attempt funding from foundations which (1) are located in our city or state; or (2) those that you have contacts with. Whether you know someone or not, do your homework. Obtain information on the foundation. Annual reports are available which list past beneficiaries. All foundations will have an application procedure and a list of guidelines. All have funding priorities and projects to which they will not give. Some foundations won't give to colleges, some will only give to cities in which their plants are located, etc. Knowing that can save you time and embarrassment.


If it looks like the foundation might have possibilities, give the foundation office a call and ask them about your project idea. Do they think it has merit? Would they entertain a proposal? If they say yes, then you're off and running. What you should try to do is to talk to their representative at least one more time before submitting the proposal. one way of doing that is to hand carry the proposal to their office. That way a face is now associated with your organization, and you are beginning to establish an all important relationship with the foundation staff.


In development of your foundation proposal, here's a few things to keep in mind:

  • Watch the use of acronyms. Make it simple. Private foundation proposals are typically two pages long and the use of acronyms or any convoluted logic complicate the proposal. Foundations are required by the IRS to give only to other tax exempt non-profit organization.
  • If you are a part of a non profit organization or institution, your organization's administrators will have a letter from the IRS which officially recognizes you as tax exempt. This document is the so call 501 (c) (3) letter. Get a copy of the letter and keep it on file. If you deal with private foundations you'll need to provide copies of it. You'll also need a copy of your current operating budget.
  • Finally, when you put your proposal together, make it an attractive package. Leave some white space and let the reader's eye rest. Don't try to cram all the justifications for your program in it. State your case concisely and then close.

One last note for college or university programs. Don't forget about the alumni association. They are a private foundation organized to specifically benefit your college. Get to know them. If you have a project that needs funding, they may be able to provide invaluable help.


Dan Tillemans, who runs the Outdoor Education Program at Cornell is a good example of someone who has effectively raised funds from alumni. We will take a closer look at Cornell's success in the Cash Donation section.





Another way to bring in revenues is through fund raising events. Examples of fund raisers include fun runs, triathlons, dinners, outdoor equipment sales, etc. As long as you watch expenses, a fund raising event almost always can be expected to bring in income. I try to make sure that during the year, we hold several fund raising events. Sometimes the return from the event is only $100, but combined with other events, it adds up. Realistically, unless you put together an annual event that stimulates a lot public interest, you can't expect a large return from fund raisers. They do, however, provide some revenues that haven't been there in the past, and they can be incorporated in your regular schedule program activities.


One fund raiser which has good potential for many programs is a used outdoor equipment sale. Students and community members bring in their used equipment and price it. Its then available to purchase on a night which has been well advertised to the public. In our used equipment sale, we collect all the money, taking 20% of each item that is sold for our share and giving the remaining 80% the seller. Everyone benefits. People are able to pick up equipment for a reasonable price, others are able to sell their old equipment and the outdoor program increases its revenues.




Programs can be helped by non-cash donations of such things as library books, back issues of magazines, outdoor equipment and other supplies. For instance, the local ski club gives all their unclaimed skis to our handicapped group after their large community used ski equipment sale. A lot of it is junk, of course, which we throw away, but some of it is good and useful in the program. By the way, another source of free ski equipment for programs which work with the disabled or disadvantaged is from the United Ski Industry Association (8377 B Greensboro Drive, McLean, VA 22102). Retailers with used or unsold ski equipment donate the goods to the USIA which then disperses them to needy groups.


Books and back issues of magazines can be useful for programs with resource center. Get the word out that you need magazines. Somewhere out there is someone with a set of old back issues of Climbing or Backpacker, and they would be delighted to get them out of the house and in the hands of someone who could use them. The most important point is to let people know that you welcome donations. Include a mention on your newsletters and brochures. Every so often suggest specific items that you need--a computer, van, raft. It may not produce anything, but at least it will start people thinking that you do accept equipment donations. If you don't tell them, they'll never know. Lastly, remind potential donors that you can provide them with a tax deduction for their donation.




There are different ways to solicit cash contributions for the program. One method is make a donation box available in the office or at special programs. As an example, we run an open climbing session at the nearby city park. Lately, because of the popularity of climbing the program has attracted a good size crowd. our ropes and equipment were getting trashed, and because of a limited budget, new equipment was out of the question. We didn't want to charge for the activity, rather we preferred that people donate. An easel with a large colorful sign was put up, which laid out some ground rules for the activities and encouraged participants to contribute to equipment. The sign, along with tactful reminders of the need for donations by helpers and volunteers, has worked wonderfully. Because of donation program, we have been able purchase new ropes and other equipment, and we haven't been forced to charge a fee.


The most common method of soliciting cash contributions is to send out a letter. In order to conduct a direct mail campaign, you'll need to develop a mailing list. A good way to develop a list is to put out a sheet of paper at various program functions and have people sign up. Especially, keep track of alumni of your program. Those who have done activities with your program will be supportive. If you have evening programs and public events, it won't take too long to get a mailing list underway. Be aware that if you are in a college program, you can't expect to receive donations from students. They're pressed for funds and are not in a position to donate. Your best audience are those in the community and program alumni. That's why it's a good idea to make some or all programs open to the community. You can't expect the community to help if they don't have access to at least part of your program.


Direct mail solicitation is an art and all of us see a multitude of examples nearly every day in the mail. My suggestion is to keep it simple. State in your letter the benefits of the program and your need for funds. Although some direct mail authorities say that it doesn't help return rates, I like to enclose a self-addressed business reply envelope. It's a nice convenience for our donors and I don't mind the extra expense. Some people enclose a brochure, but it does drive up the expense considerably. I leave it out since our mailing goes to those who know the program, and it is not necessary to go to lengths to sell the idea. Personally, I dislike more than one appeal a year from organizations, and I have always sent out our fund raising letter on an annual basis only. You may find that initially the return is small, but keep with it. Fund raising is like building a business. It starts small and with hard work and persistence, it gradually grows.


Another solicitation method that should be mentioned is the use of the telephone. Like most people, I abhor it and don't recommend it. It is simply crass commercialism and does nothing to improve the image of the program.


Of all the methods of soliciting donations, personal contact is by far the best. In a college environment some of the best potential donors are alumni, particularly alumni with an interest in the outdoors. At Cornell, Dan Tillemans developed a climbing wall proposal and then worked with university development personnel to identify potential alumni donors. One alumnus in particular was a climber and had just sold a business. Tillemans and another university representative had dinner with the alumnus and presented the climbing wall plan.


Enthusiastic over the idea, the alumnus convinced several others to donate and eventually he came up with the entire $160,000 price tag for the wall. Building upon that success, Tillemans later put together a proposal for an outfitting center, and once again donations from alumni provided the start-up costs of $50,000 to get the center under way.


Tillemans feels that it is best to approach potential alumni donors with special project. A request to help support an Outdoor Programs ongoing budget is not attractive. Donors want to see something special and meaningful result from their donation.




Once you start raising funds, the next logical question is where to put them. If the funds are for a special project then all moneys will go towards that end. If the funds have no designated purpose, you may initially decide to place them in your budget. However, be careful with putting raised funds in the general budget. If you are a part of an university or a large non-profit organization, revenues can disappear when one fiscal year ends and another starts.


As fund raising programs begin to produce more revenues, look carefully at other options. one option is to create a special funding raising account from which disbursements are made for special needs. Another option is the formation of an endowment. Endowment moneys are placed in safe investments, and you use the return only from the investments. Because the principle is not touched, funds are available each year.


For instance, lets say you have gradually built up an endowment fund of $10,000. The $10,000 is invested and might earn, say $700, this year. You can use the $700, but the $10,000 is not touched. I really recommend starting an endowment. Even if you only can put in a couple hundred dollars the first year, it's a important seed which will sprout and grow over the years.


Your organization, whether it is part of a university or a non-profit entity, will have a system of dealing with endowments. If not, it is vital that you draw up an endowment agreement. State what purposes the endowment can be used for and who is responsible for making decisions. If you move onto another job, you'll want to make sure that the proceeds from the endowment are not funneled off to other purposes. An endowment agreement helps assure that it's not. Who makes the decisions on how use the endowment funds can be the outdoor program director or an advisory board.


An advisory board is a valuable addition to an outdoor program's management structure. In specific, an advisory board is a proper and accepted way of dealing with raised funds. I highly recommend having an attorney and accountant serve on the board since their professional background can be invaluable when dealing with financial and legal matters.


At some point, you will want to consider the formation of a non-profit entity, such as a "Friends of the Outdoor Program", which give you greater support and flexibility for fund raising programs. Creating a non-profit foundation involves filing Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State and a long form with the IRS. Once a non-profit "friends" foundation is created, you can establish a checking account, which is under the control of the board,, but provides more flexibility than university purchasing procedures. Your board of directors serves as an excellent resource and crucial in making contacts with potential donors.


There are also disadvantages to formation of a "friends" foundation. If you are part of the university, the administration may look at the formation of a foundation with disfavor. You'll need to approach it carefully and work slowly within the administrative structure to build support for it. It takes a lot of work to get a non profit organization started and it takes effort to keep it going.


Once you have one started, you may have to pay sales tax, and you'll have IRS tax forms to fill out. There is a downside, but it is minor compared to the benefits.




Links to Other Outdoor Education PapersĀ 





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