I've been involved in an effort to protect Chicago's endangered piping plovers throughout 2019, as a volunteer, a Board member of Chicago Ornithological Society and as a documentary filmmaker. I addressed the Chicago Park District's Board of Commissioners during their monthly meeting today at their headquarters. Here's what I said.
Good afternoon. My name is Bob Dolgan and I’m a Board member of Chicago Ornithological Society and dad to two young daughters who frequently visit Montrose Beach. I’ve also made a short documentary, “Monty and Rose,” about the federally endangered piping plovers that nested at Montrose Beach this summer—one pair out of only 71 pairs left in the world. The film has played to seven local screenings, five of which have sold out and led to Governor Pritzker declaring November 18, 2019, Piping Plover Day in Illinois.
When Monty and Rose began scratching their nests, it was a stunning moment in Chicago’s natural history. For 64 years, these birds, the gray ghosts of Great Lakes beaches, had been missing from Chicago. Now they had returned, much to the surprise of the entirety of the birding community. We dropped everything to be there and stand guard around their very vulnerable nests. A few days later we learned of the Mamby on the Beach music festival being scheduled for Montrose Beach for the third week of August. It felt as though the rug was pulled out from under us. The festival certainly would be a conflict for the up to two dozen shorebird species that would be stopping on the beach for migration at the same time.
Montrose Beach is a top three birding destination in eastern North America in terms of the number of species observed, 346. It’s the top birding destination in ALL of North America when accounting for its relatively small size. It’s become an even more incredible place because of the longtime efforts of habitat restoration volunteers led by the indomitable Leslie Borns, and because the Park District has invested in it. People come from all over the Midwest and the suburbs to visit Chicago, to visit Montrose, to watch birds. Four weeks ago today, an ancient murrelet, a seabird of the craggy coasts of the Pacific Northwest, showed up at Montrose. One hundred and four birders from across the state arrived on a moment’s notice to observe the bird on a dreary November day. That’s just one example of a lot of people coming into the city to watch birds.
We need to recognize that the dunes, savannas and wetlands on the southern end of Lake Michigan existed long before us. Birds still utilize the patchwork of what’s left. That’s why we’re asking that the Park District create a policy for large events at Montrose, so that we can again be the City in a Garden.
Piping Plover Day draws 2.5 million-plus media impressions, mobilizes volunteers, marks release of documentary
From two beach clean-ups to a bird walk, a happy hour and even a film screening, the first-ever Illinois Piping Plover Day was a smashing success, tallying at least 2.5 million media impressions and bringing together people across the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan. Piping Plover Day—a concept developed and implemented by Turnstone Strategies—was inspired by “Monty” and “Rose,” a pair of endangered piping plovers that took up residence this summer on busy Montrose Beach in Chicago. When a scheduled music festival encroached on their nest, the plovers were propelled to national headlines and became local avian celebrities.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared November 18 Piping Plover Day to celebrate the birds, the volunteers that protected them and the release of a documentary on the same day. The announcement drew interest from television, radio and newspaper outlets. With just days to prepare, we quickly organized a suite of activities on a dreary November day. For starters, volunteers gathered at Montrose Beach to collect plastics and other human debris in hopes of protecting shorebird habitat. Volunteers in Waukegan followed that up with a beach cleanup of their own. Meanwhile, a group of birders braved the 30-degree temperatures for a walk at South Shore Nature Sanctuary, a parcel of lakefront property that is threatened by development. In the afternoon, the festivities moved to Spiteful Brewing on the city’s North Side, where a cause marketing promotion included a toast to Monty and Rose and a percentage-of-sales to benefit piping plover conservation.
The special day was capped by a screening of “Monty and Rose,” an independent documentary developed by Turnstone Strategies and funded through the generous support of backers on Kickstarter. The showing drew a sellout crowd to the historic Music Box Theatre, the first of five sold-out showings.
A robust social strategy resulted in at least 100,000 impressions on Twitter and nearly as many on Facebook. The #PloverDay hashtag and custom graphics received tweets and retweets from a number of notable birders and leading Chicago conservation organizations and public agencies. The earned media strategy included print media and a letter to the editor that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
Local volunteers are hopeful that Monty and Rose return to Chicago next year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a goal of ensuring 150 piping plover pairs in the Great Lakes by 2050. The current total is 71 pairs. The next steps are to develop a longer-lasting communications strategy that raises awareness of the birds, rallies Chicagoans and ensures expansion of the plover population.
Visit www.montyandrose.net to learn more about the documentary and attend a screening.
"Monty and Rose" tells the story of a pair of endangered piping plovers that successfully nested at Chicago's Montrose Beach in the summer of 2019, the first of the species to nest in Chicago in 64 years. Written, produced and directed by Turnstone's Bob Dolgan, the short documentary chronicles these special birds and an unpredictable series of events including a proposed music festival that propelled the birds to national headlines. "Monty and Rose" features interviews with an array of key players in the story, including biologists, birders, volunteers and the advocates who spoke out when the music festival was proposed. "Monty and Rose" is an independent project, funded through the generous support of backers on Kickstarter. Partners in the project include Turnstone Strategies, Wenkus Productions, Free Spirit Media and Eileen Wagner Design. Music is by local indie favorites Congress of Starlings. "Monty and Rose" will be released in November 2019. Learn more and support the film by visiting www.montyandrose.net.
Check out our trailer below!
By Bob Dolgan
September is traditionally the time when nonprofit organizations take a serious look at their plans for year-end fundraising. For many organizations, the last several weeks of the year account for the majority of individual giving. The rise of Giving Tuesday has changed the traditional calendar a bit. So have changes to the tax code — Dec. 31 is more of a symbolic deadline than it was in the past. What hasn’t changed is the importance of communicating with advocates, donors and volunteers — early and often.
Here is a primer on the four P’s of nonprofit marketing, a framework I developed after studying the four P’s that reign in corporate marketing. Nonprofit marketing has some things in common with for-profit marketing. It also has many things unlike for-profit marketing in that its activities are for public benefit rather than for shareholders. So here goes.
People are the advocates, donors, employees, partners and volunteers who support your cause and may be best positioned to support it again. Each of these groups requires a slightly different approach, though relationship-building and communications are at the core. People may be approached through events, phone calls and meetings, or virtually via email or social media. Your interactions with People throughout the year should build to a well-positioned request for support at the end of the year.
Programming refers to the mission of the organization or the services it provides. Having marketers present for programming conversations is highly valuable. When I was with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the rollout of the Producemobile served multiple purposes — it provided fruit and vegetables to food deserts but also served as a unique identifier for the organization and a popular program with members of the media, donors and volunteers. In the end, the organization’s programs are a form of marketing.
Promotion is made up of the organization’s marketing channels, or all the communications that explain services and their impact. Promotion tactics are especially varied, including advertising, blogs, direct mail, emails, newsletters, podcasts, social media, websites and video. The goal of promotion is a high volume of impressions that reach people several times with meaningful information about the organization. It’s important to be consistent with everything from messaging to visual identity.
Purpose is about differentiating an organization’s offerings and creating value that goes beyond the services it provides. Purpose can relate to the organization’s beliefs, how it goes about its work and how it conveys its organizational voice. One significant opportunity under Purpose is storytelling. The way the organization shares its most compelling anecdotes can help it stand out from the crowd. Purpose can be one of the less tangible concepts but also can be one of the most powerful.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act, the view from coal country and a visit to a solar-powered building in Uptown
I went back to some old haunts in Southeast Ohio recently. My friend’s family had owned a cabin in the Appalachian part of the state for years, and I’d been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time there. It was something of a reunion of 40-something friends that brought us to a campground in the area in June, right along the Ohio River.
We did some wonderful hiking, but there often wasn’t much to do but sit and watch barges go by on the river. The barges, as it turns out, were moving coal toward a big power plant on the West Virginia side.
I thought about the amount of energy being used to extract the coal, fuel the barges and power the plant. Then I thought about how mining coal would affect the trees and the hills all around us. Not to mention the carbon-filled air from the coal plant. It seemed there might be some more modern and healthier ways to create electricity.
Back in Chicago, there’s been another thing I’ve observed recently: a buzz around electricity without coal. I’ve met several people in the past year who are working in the industry or even starting energy companies themselves. It’s given me some room for optimism. Here’s some evidence of less reliance on coal in the place I call home, along with the recent closures of nearby coal-fired plants. There’s some national data showing a trend here.
That’s what brought me to a town hall-style event at the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) in my neighborhood of Uptown a few weeks ago. ICA has a noble mission, committed to equity and the environment, located in a “green rise” building powered by solar panels. The event was to discuss a bill, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), with some lofty goals: 100% renewable energy in Illinois by 2050 and 40 million solar panels and 2,500 wind turbines by 2030. The bill has provisions around jobs, too, including investing in former power plant workers and disadvantaged communities.
The people at the town hall included families and a cross-section of Uptown residents. They came with common-sense concerns about energy and the economy. A lot of people felt like alternative energy was expensive, something that was out of reach and only available to the wealthy. Event organizers explained how that wasn’t necessarily the case.
I’m not entirely sure why CEJA wasn’t approved in the last session of the General Assembly. The bill makes quite a bit of sense and will not drain resources in a time when state finances are suffering. The hope is that it will pass in November and then be signed into law.
A meeting room in Uptown is a far cry from the banks of the Ohio River and coal country. But maybe an effort to further wean us from fossil fuel can start here in Chicago and Illinois. That could be hard to imagine for those in Ohio and West Virginia, who rely on coal for so much, but perhaps there is a path forward that works for everyone—and for our own health and well-being.
ICA has a nice write-up about the Uptown event here. ICA is organizing two more similar listening events, in South Shore on Aug. 28 and in Bronzeville in October.
Click here to learn more about CEJA and to get involved.
I'm pleased to introduce a Kickstarter to fund a short documentary on Monty and Rose, the two endangered piping plovers that are nesting at Montrose Beach and are the first piping plovers to nest in Chicago in at least 64 years. I am using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform to complete the filming and editing of the project. As of now, we have a clip reel featuring Monty, Rose and the birds of Montrose Point, as well as an interview with Chicago Ornithological Society President Carl Giometti.
There has been quite a bit in the news lately about a concert planned for Montrose Beach in August. The goal here is to lift the narrative above the concert and create something lasting for the birds of Montrose Point, which is perhaps a top-five birding locale in the nation.
Click here to support the Kickstarter now through Aug. 5, 2019.
“I Dont wanna be here”
These were the words of a tweet by then-Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe in 2017. The tweet was sublime in its simplicity, if not in punctuation. In five words, Bledsoe conveyed his desire to be traded. You didn’t need to know the back story, or much else about the situation. It was time to move on from an oft-clueless Phoenix franchise. Within days, the Suns traded Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks. The team later signed Bledsoe to a long-term contract and then had the best record in the NBA this season. It started with that tweet.
This got me thinking about Twitter and what I’ve learned while using the platform. Here are a few thoughts, with a nod to what I’ll call the Bledsoe Effect.
Twitter is a highly adaptable platform. Bledsoe is going to have a different approach than someone looking for news or someone interested in mountain climbing or someone tweeting on behalf of a corporation, government agency or organization. Take for instance my favorite pastime of birding (a term interchangeably used with birdwatching). Photos of birds are often of most interest to my followers and draw the highest engagement levels. Toss in an interesting caption about Horned Grebes as a sign of spring and you might get a mini-Bledsoe effect and receive a nice response.
Twitter rewards consistency. Sure, everyone wants to fire off a random tweet occasionally. The beauty of the platform is that even a somewhat-thoughtless tweet typically goes away quickly. But if you are looking for engagement, it’s better to stay in your lane and become a presence within similar-minded tweeps. Then match the words in your Twitter profile to your lane so your interests are clear to your followers.
Twitter has the best analytics function in the business. Sometimes a low number of engagements belies what’s in your analytics. Take a look at detail expands, profile views and photo and video clicks and adjust your approach accordingly. Twitter analytics are easy to find from a drop-down in your account menu.
Tweeting is like “Field of Dreams,” if you tweet it, they will come. The more times you tweet, the more impressions you gain. Rather than your posts being viewed as impolite, it’s understood that Twitter lends itself to high volume. It’s good to tweet regularly. I’m often perplexed by well-known brands that send a single tweet weekly or monthly.
Twitter is the most irreverent of the major social media platforms. It’s important to suffuse your account with posts that are spontaneous and occasionally witty. Think of the tone of your tweets more like the funny texts you exchange with friends. Again, the Bledsoe Effect. His tweet worked because it said, “I Dont wanna be here,” rather than “I’ve formally requested a trade from the Phoenix Suns.”
The other day I was watching a Sora work its way along the edge of a northwest Indiana marsh. A Sora is a type of rail, a small, secretive bird of summer wetlands in the Midwest. The phrase “skinny as a rail” alludes to these birds, which are slender enough to ease their way between cattails without disturbing them a bit. Sora are often heard more than they’re seen so I was pleased to have a clear view.
In terms of the aesthetics of its surroundings, the Sora wasn’t in the prettiest place. Cars and trucks were screaming down I-94 a few hundred yards away. There were not one but two truck stops within view. I could barely make out a voice coming from a factory loudspeaker stating “Mack, Line 2, Mack, Line 2” or something similar. A liquor store proclaiming “the coldest beer on earth” was across the road from the marsh. Yet the Sora was in the heart of the Calumet region, once home to mighty prehistoric marshes spanning the southern end of Lake Michigan and what’s now Illinois and Indiana. Whether Mack picked up on Line 2 that day, I’m not sure.
Sora have been nesting in the marshes of the Calumet for millennia. It’s only in the past century or so, a split second in evolutionary time, that they have encountered the unrelenting forces of development. As the truck stops were built, marshes were drained, prairies became parking lots and forests were cleared for houses and highways. Sora kept returning to these smaller and smaller parcels of land and water. Though countless thousands of these birds surely have been permanently lost.
Looking at the marsh, I wondered whether anyone thought about the Sora when the tide of industry began to claim the land and water. Maybe some hardcore conservationists did. It was then tempting to frame it more positively, as if I was in the bargaining stage of grief. Well, the water here must be clean enough for these birds to be present. This marsh hasn’t been filled in all the way. But thinking that is a lot like the old Chris Rock bit, about bragging about things you're supposed to do: “I take care of my kids. At least I’ve never been to jail.”
Land and water conservation are but two major environmental issues of our time. Though how we address them informs so many others. In the Calumet, we can still take steps to protect the water that is there (one of the niftier nearby efforts I’ve heard about lately is here). Rows over development aren't hard to find, even right within the region.
A few weeks later, I was birding along a golf course in Wilmette. It was past the peak of migration but the conditions were just right to see some birds. I commented to my friend Joel about the towering oaks in the flatwoods there. Well, those are going to come down if the new development goes through, he said. Wait, what? Yeah, a road could be put through to new multimillion-dollar homes. We continued counting warblers at the site, 15 species in all. There aren’t too many green spaces quite like this one, I thought, so close to the lake with plenty of habitat.
As it turns out, the Wilmette development isn't a done deal. Whether it gets built, along a migratory flyway, is up to us. We may have already lost a few battles like those in the Calumet, but there still is a sliver of hope for this one, at least until its fate is sealed. Here is a live opportunity to influence modern-day development decisions and demonstrate our values. And one of the birds occasionally found along the golf course? An elusive skulker of Midwestern marshes, one that's easy to hear but hard to see. It's none other than the mysterious, wonderful Sora.
I met Ralph Sampson when the Richmond Times-Dispatch assigned me to cover the minor-league Richmond Rhythm during the 1999-2000 season, the franchise’s lone full season in professional basketball. Jack Berninger, the legendary T-D Sports Editor, put me on the schedule to cover one of the Rhythm’s first International Basketball League games, and I was more than eager for the opportunity. A year earlier, I had been writing a dubious sports column for my college newspaper, the Kenyon Collegian in tiny Gambier, Ohio. Now I was fulfilling a dream by writing about pro ball.
Covering the Rhythm was a plum assignment for a part-time copy editor, even at the rate of $40 per story—and frankly I may have even taken the role for free. I knew that I would get to cover a lot of guys I grew up watching play in college and the NBA as a kid. Virginia sports fans would remember IBL stars like A.J. English, Derrick Johnson, Jason Miskiri and Kendrick Warren. The coach of the Rhythm was Sampson, and I was keen to be around the three-time college national player of the year.
When I showed up at the old Richmond Coliseum to cover my first game—it might have been against the long-forgotten Baltimore BayRunners—the 7-4 Sampson was on his back next to the scorer’s table. The lights illuminating the advertising boards had gone out, and he was trying to re-connect some wiring during the pre-game shootaround. I had seen enough movies like “Bull Durham” and “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” to know that the IBL wasn’t going to be the big time, but still the image of Sampson fixing those wires has stuck in my mind. I was struck by the four-time all-star’s humility and resourcefulness.
The Rhythm went on to have a long, chaotic season. Attendance was terrible. There was constant roster turnover, and the team struggled to jell. In one notorious incident, a starting forward left the bench during a game because his car was being repossessed. I got to cover most of the team’s home games, and all along Sampson patiently answered my questions as I asked about roster moves and game strategy. He even sought me out before games to let me in on some behind-the-scenes details.
Somehow, with a few games left in the season, the Rhythm was in contention for a playoff spot in the IBL’s quirky postseason format. The team ended up making the playoffs with a record of 23-41 and went on to upset the Cincinnati Stuff to win the conference title. A few more fans were coming to games, and some of my stories started making it onto the front page of the T-D sports section. Again, a big deal. The team finally met its match in the IBL finals against the St. Louis Swarm, which swept to the title. Richmond had finally generated a bit of momentum heading into its second season, though ultimately a range of other factors kept the franchise from completing that season. And Sampson didn’t return as coach.
All of this has come to mind as I’ve watched Virginia return to the Final Four for the first time since 1984 when Sampson was playing center. It’s great to see that Ralph’s at the games now and enjoying the ride despite some legal troubles in recent years.
My career has taken me a long way from covering minor-league sports, but some of those lessons of grace and humility from Sampson have stuck with me. All we can hope to do is measure up to them in moments big and small like he did.
A portion of this piece appeared in April 7, 2019, editions of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Like many other households, we recently completed our tax returns for the 2018 tax year. Along the way we discovered something new as part of the 2017 tax reform law: the donation receipts we hung onto throughout the year were basically irrelevant. No longer could my wife and I individually deduct the support we provided to an array of tax-exempt, 501c3 charitable organizations. Our standard deduction would far outweigh our charitable contributions.
I was a little taken aback at this: Not only might it change the calculus for our giving approach, it also might change the incentive structure for the entire $390 billion nonprofit industry. Dec. 31 was always a big day for us to make those tax-deductible gifts. For nonprofits, it was a date that meant everything—one last call for donations and often a day that could make or break your annual revenue goal.
So I read up on the new tax code so you don’t have to. I summarized what I found here—and what the implications may be for nonprofits—with some inspiration from the Wu-Tang Clan, which recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the classic rap album “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.” Because, truly, cash rules everything around me.
“It’s been 22 long, hard years, I’m still strugglin’. Survival got me buggin’, but I’m alive on arrival.”
My wife and I aren’t alone when it comes to taxes this year. The number of households claiming an itemized deduction for charitable purposes is projected to drop from 37 million to 16 million, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. The law increased the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for couples. For anyone giving less than that—and let’s face it, that’s most of us—it’s no longer advantageous to list all the charitable gifts we made throughout the year.
“If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous”
The financial repercussions for charities are potentially enormous. The Tax Policy Center estimated the new law would reduce charitable giving in 2018 by between about 4% and 6.5%, equating to billions of dollars. That’s why the charitable sector advocated vigorously against these changes.
Tax incentives aren’t the only reason people give, though. Commitment to the cause and organizational impact and effectiveness are still key drivers, experts say. The Dec. 31 deadline acted as a reminder to give, but often wasn’t the main motivation. For us it was a nice tradition to look back on the year’s gifts, especially coming on the heels of the holiday season.
“The Wu is too slammin for these cold killin labels. Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel.”
How else might this not be bad for nonprofits? One fundraising friend believes that these changes won’t make much difference at all, especially for the wealthy “1% crowd” who largely won’t be affected. He also believes that foundations and corporations will continue at their same levels.
Further, the new provisions sunset in 2025, and incentives actually went up for those wealthier households that itemize deductions. For the middle class itemizers, donors may “bunch” their donations into one year so that they can exceed the itemized deduction threshold and claim additional benefits. Individuals also might begin pooling money into donor-advised funds and family foundations. On the other hand, bunching and pooling would have an effect on those nonprofit cash flows, which already rely on a surfeit of funds coming in each December.
“Reunited, double LP, world excited. Struck a match to the underground, industry ignited.”
With a nod to “Wu-Tang Forever,” what to do about all this, aside from riding it out until 2025? My thought as a donor is to continue to make gifts in the December timeframe—on Giving Tuesday and in the last week of the year so that organizations have the cash to keep operations running smoothly. Cash does indeed rule everything around me.
Nonprofit themselves should be aware of these changes and recognize that Dec. 31 may have some reduced importance. But also that people may not be that likely to change their behavior.
Communicate to your supporters about the law and continue demonstrating your impact. The causes we’re working on are too important to do otherwise.
Our blog is a space for stories of the natural world and the occasional post about communications, strategy and policy.