Dominique Leeming charts how strong community engagement saw a small unit from New Zealand’s marine rescue organisation, Coastguard, raise enough to buy a new boat in just 12 months.

Coastguard rescue vessel
Foveaux Strait, a treacherous stretch of water separating New Zealand’s southern tip from Stewart Island, has claimed 23 lives from 1998 to 2012. That year, eight souls were lost from the fishing vessel ‘Easy Rider’ in the country’s second largest sea disaster. A lone survivor, Dallas Reedy, was rescued by Coastguard Bluff volunteers after spending 18 hours clinging to a petrol container in icy waters.

This event was also one link in the chain of the rescue of Coastguard Bluff. The impact of the tragedy and Reedy’s survival helped galvanise the close-knit local Southland community, which had established the volunteer unit in 1998 in response to the need for marine search and rescue services for vessels in trouble in the Foveaux Strait area. In just 12 months from mid-2013 – half the time expected – Coastguard Bluff’s ‘Mayday’ capital campaign raised $1.2 million for a new rescue boat and won the 2014 Fundraising Institute of New Zealand Award Soar Printing Capital Campaigns Award.

Priming the fundraising engines

Over the years, to fulfil their mission to save lives at sea, Coastguard Bluff’s volunteers had used recreational boats owned by members and a retired Team New Zealand America’s Cup chase boat. The existing vessel was only 8.5m long and more than 20 years old. The need for a replacement was recognised in 2008. But plans were shelved because of challenges, including the high costs.

In early 2013 Coastguard’s capital campaigns manager, Dominique Leeming, began developing a case for support and a feasibility study for raising $1.25 million to buy a fit-for-purpose vessel. The study discovered key issues and opportunities for Coastguard Bluff.

The small organisation had a low profile in the community. A massive $43 million campaign to build a new sports stadium locally meant that the two largest funders in Southland, The Community Trust of Southland and the ILT Foundation – though very supportive – could only give $50,000 each. Also, at the time Coastguard Bluff didn’t have an established individual giving program on which to base its approach for support, and there was no history of seeking donations from individual fishermen as well as mixed feelings within the organisation about doing this.

On the positive side of the ledger, most people viewed the project as a priority for the community and no-one thought the target was unachievable. So a plan to conduct a 24-month campaign was put in place.

Catching a wave of campaign leadership

The calibre of leadership was key to the campaign’s success. The feasibility study had identified two people possessing local mana – the Maori word for prestige, influence and power – along with business and philanthropic nous and good connections. Jon Turnbull, a well known Southland leader in the financial sector, agreed to be chairperson and Cam McCulloch, a professional director of the campaign, became spokesperson.

An early indication of success was the willingness to volunteer on the committee by a further core group that had been identified in the study. Another was the speed at which the committee raced into action – Jon Turnbull was recruited on a Thursday and by the following Monday he’d called the first meeting for Tuesday where minutes, action points and prospect lists were circulated.

Media support spread awareness

One major campaign supporter was the local newspaper, The Southland Times. Its editor, Fred Tulett, had offered to provide support in a feasibility interview. The paper published a number of articles highlighting Coastguard Bluff’s work in the community. When 50% of the fundraising target was reached, the full campaign case for support was printed as a page-one article. This was followed by daily calls for donations for six months, with a story every Saturday.

All campaign media releases celebrating donations and grants were printed. This channel alone helped raise $100,000 from individual community members.

Buy-in from the commercial fishing community

The fishing industry was, for obvious reasons, a key stakeholder in the campaign. A sub-committee that had connections and credibility was set up to approach local commercial fishermen. It was known that this community had the capacity to give. A number of the bigger players were approached face-to-face and asked to contribute. Donations as large as $20,000 were secured. There were also a significant number of smaller companies and individuals to connect with, so a tailored direct mail package was used. Over 200 letters were sent with a 21% response rate and an average gift of over $1,400.

Reaching target a year early

In a community that was already stretched in terms of capital fundraising projects, the campaign reached $1.25 million in June 2014 – a year early. The Lotteries Commission gave the largest grant of $300,000 (see Figure A) followed by Perpetual Trust’s pledge of $250,000, while gifts from the fishing community made up $100,000.

Helping along these results was the fact the campaign was run on a shoe-string budget – for example all campaign materials were designed and printed in-house – with a cost-to-income ratio of 1:35 or 3%.

Along with following tried-and-true capital campaign formulae, other keys to success were the volunteer campaign committee’s high calibre, a compelling and urgent case for support, media backing and a sense of community ownership. Locals celebrate that there are only two degrees of separation in Southland and everyone seemed to know someone who had lost their life in Foveaux Strait.

The campaign committee were singled out for praise by John Prendergast, chief executive officer of the Community Trust of Southland, which gave $50,000. “We’re very happy to support good projects,” he said. “This is one of the best fundraising campaigns that I have ever seen. In my 16 years in the job, I’ve probably seen about 8,000 projects so I don’t say this without some degree of experience.”

The new 13-metre vessel with twin diesel-driven jet engines and capable of 35 to 40 knots is expected to launch mid-2015 and provide fast-response rescue with the capability to help those who find themselves in peril up to 25km from land.

Figure A: Coastguard Bluff gift chart

Coastguard Bluff gift table

All figures in this article are in New Zealand dollars.

Main photo published courtesy of Tony Brunt Photography.

Dominique Leeming SmallerDominique Leeming has been a professional fundraiser for 15 years, working for a range of social service and volunteer organisations. She holds CFRE accreditation and is a fellow of the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand. Working for Coastguard for the last five years, she helps Coastguard units realise their capital project aspirations.

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