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Eliza Herbert describes how Bush Heritage adapted to difficult times and created its most successful Autumn Appeal

Cooling the flamesThe Black Summer 

There are some things you can’t turn a blind eye to, like when thick smoke travels hundreds of kilometres from out-of-control bushfires to overwhelm cities, coating skyscrapers with a smoky tinge. Or cockatoos forebodingly screeching past your home at a frantic pace, fleeing flames. Or when a nature reserve – and all the plants and animals it protects – is under siege from a raging bushfire that threatens containment lines and years of long-term land management. This was national conservation not-for-profit Bush Heritage Australia’s experience when planning for its seasonal Autumn fundraising appeal during the Black Summer of 2019-20. Except instead of it being one nature reserve it was seven, during a summer where the scale and ferocity of Australia’s bushfire season was unprecedented.

Bush Heritage Australia buys and manages land, and partners with Aboriginal people and pastoralists, to protect 11.3 million hectares of land across Australia through 36 reserves and 25 Aboriginal partnerships. As part of its yearly fundraising activities it generates approximately 17% of its revenue through quarterly direct mail appeals. 

Before the Black Summer fires that wrought devastation across the country, Bush Heritage’s Autumn Appeal was due to lodge in mid-March. The focus was to be on the Fitz-Stirling Reserves on Noongar country in Western Australia and a 70km tract of land that is being restored to create a vital habitat for species like the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo and the nationally vulnerable Malleefowl. 

Bush Heritage’s Fundraising and Engagement team quickly realised that this topic would not be appropriate. It didn’t take into account the momentous impact the fires were having on their supporters and the Australian people and caused their Executive Manager of Marketing and Fundraising, Melinda Warnecke, to reassess.

“From a fundraising perspective, the generosity of Australians and international supporters in this moment of crisis was immense. Tens of millions of dollars flowed into bushfire appeals across Australia. How could we in good conscience ask supporters to give again when it’s likely that they had already given to bushfire relief?” Melinda says. “And how could our first communication piece of the year turn a blind eye to the critical events of the summer?” 

Pivoting the appeal

After a deep conversation with their trusted fundraising partner, Sydney-based marketing agency Marlin Communications, Bush Heritage made the decision to pivot the appeal from a traditional fundraising campaign to a donor-care piece that acknowledged the environmental crisis that was unfolding and laid out the impact on Bush Heritage’s seven affected reserves.

“From a business perspective, the appeal potentially stood to lose income, but the aim was to nurture supporters and provide them with hope in the aftermath of the devastation, rather than go in hard with images of burned koalas and charred landscapes,” Melinda says. 

It was decided that the pack would have no direct financial asks. Rather, it would reassure supporters that Bush Heritage staff were working hard to assess the ecological impact on the ground and had a plan for recovery.

The strategy 

The revised donor-care piece, Seven Reserves, Seven Stories of Survival, was born out of this need to communicate Bush Heritage’s position on the bushfire crisis in a heartfelt and empathetic manner to inspire hope and reassurance when all seemed lost and it needed to place supporters at the centre and to consider their needs during an uncertain time. 

The strategy was to be responsive; to allow supporters to have a meaningful experience, to feel that they are a part of Bush Heritage’s team, and that together they could overcome the increasing challenges our environment faces. 

The donation form was pared back. 

The Bush Heritage Autumn appeal packs were stripped of direct asks

An ‘Incident Action Plan’ gave detailed analysis of the impact of the fires in the Bush Heritage Autumn appeal packs.

The task at hand was to create a direct mail pack that informed donors of the state of the Bush Heritage reserves that they had invested in through their donations. Donors would learn how their support had helped mitigate the damage of the fires and how it would inform the response in the future as Bush Heritage examined its current work and the need for a further investment in fire management to respond to the changing climate.

The packs would be stripped of direct asks on the collateral and the donation form would be pared back. The design would be simplified, to allow the stories to do the talking; and in turn allowing the supporter to see how they are a part of the story.

“In November 2019, a lightning strike on a neighbouring property caused a fire to burn across remote Yantabulla [in New South Wales]. We worked alongside local fire services and neighbours for 20 days to save one of Australia’s most significant wetlands,” the pack reads. “We were directly attacking the fire front, in the evening and very early mornings, when the fire died down a bit… we walked into the firegrounds, and used chainsaws, hand tools and hard work to create a containment line that was over three kilometres long.”

Accompanied by an ‘Incident Action Plan’ and detailed analysis of the impact of the fires across the other six reserves and the total hectares burnt, the featured content was informative, up to date and laid out the path forward.

In the end, Bush Heritage and Marlin Communications produced a classic donor-centric appeal that featured a simple letter, a brochure, a signature premium and a kraft envelope. ‘Donate Now’ buttons were even removed from the supporting emails.

“It was a risk, but a risk worth taking because it showed our supporters that our values were more important than anything else,” Melinda says.

The results 

In anticipation of a reduced income and the fact that COVID-19 had just begun to impact Australia, the decision was made to lower the income target from $426,000 to $213,000. A decision Bush Heritage later learned was unnecessary – Seven Reserves, Seven Stories of Survival quickly became its most successful Autumn Appeal in their 29-year history.

Without asks, supporters superseded all expectations, donating more than $550,000. This funding ensures that Bush Heritage reserves across the country are able to provide vital refuges for wildlife impacted by the bushfires. Importantly, it also proved the importance of being adaptive to a changing environment, especially when it comes to large-scale, hard-hitting events, and served as a reminder of how important it is to consider and respect the emotional needs of your supporters.

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are in unprecedented times,” Melinda says. “Life happens fast, and crisis can befall us at any moment. It has also taught us the power of community – that when people come together with shared values, they may not be able to prevent the crisis, but they are mobilised to combat its impact and create positive outcomes for everyone.

“It reminded us that when creating communications for our supporters, we need to be responsive to the times.”


Seven reserves, seven stories of survival 

The seven Bush Heritage reserves that were impacted by the Black Summer were: Charles Darwin in Western Australia; Cravens Peak, Carnarvon Station and Yourka in Queensland and Burrin Burrin, Scottsdale and Yantabulla Swamp (adjoining Naree Station) in New South Wales (Yantabulla Swamp is owned by South Endeavour Trust but managed by Bush Heritage).

Months on from the fires, signs of recovery are everywhere. Green shoots have well and truly poked through burnt soil, the grassy understory is bouncing back, and native species are out-competing weedy rivals. Some species, like Yourka’s population of Mareeba rock-wallaby (thought threatened by the bushfires), have been gleefully sighted. And remnant patches of unburnt forest are acting as vital refuges for species like the greater glider.

The silver linings are abundant. And the success of Bush Heritage’s Autumn Appeal is one of them. 

Eliza Herbert is the Communications and Fundraising Officer at Bush Heritage Australia. 

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