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Saving the gorillas one story at a time

In 1978, primatologist Dian Fossey started the Digit Fund to protect the world’s last 250 mountain gorillas; tragically, Fossey was murdered in the field in 1985. The organization was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in 1992, and moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 1995. The fund has a staff of 10 in Atlanta dedicated to fundraising and public relations; it has a much larger staff of 150 based in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tara Stoinski was named president/CEO and chief scientific officer of the Fossey Fund in 2014. Previously, she worked as vice president of science for the organization while also serving as the director of primate research at Zoo Atlanta. She holds adjunct faculty positions at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

She talked with us from the Fossey Fund’s Atlanta headquarters about their efforts to raise awareness and fuel their work in Africa.

Is it difficult nowadays to attract new people to help gorillas?

We are extremely lucky to have donors in our database that go back to the early ‘80s, but we always need to keep growing that support.

Attracting new people is a big challenge for an organization like ours. Unlike a lot of local institutions where there is a direct benefit from, say, a membership, our benefits are less tangible in that the money is going to Africa to help support gorillas, and so a donor never sees or experiences the result of their support.

Dian Fossey is a hero to many people and was immortalized in the movie, Gorillas in the Mist, which helps rally people to our cause. And we are lucky to work with a species that people feel a connection to, and which are actually increasing in number as a result of our work. All of these definitely help in our fund raising efforts. But in the U.S., environmental charities rank very low on the list of where people tend to give money.

Another challenge is that we have no endowment. We start each year at zero, so attracting new people is critical, particularly as the majority of our funding comes from individuals.

How do you reach new supporters?

We are increasingly relying on digital communications to engage people. We are in the forest with the gorillas 365 days of the year, so we have lots of great stories to tell about their lives, as well as about the work we do to help local communities who share the gorillas’ forest homes.

We’re about to do a redesign of our website, and social media is very important to us. We have around 187,000 followers on Facebook, 15,000 on Twitter and more than 5,000 on Instagram. We also have digital newsletters, and we rely a lot on direct mail.

Are there times during the year when people tend to give, or are there things that happen in the world that tend to increase giving?

We haven’t really seen any world events mobilize donations to us, but end-of-year giving is huge. Between October and December we raise 40 percent of our money for the year. So if end-of-year giving is off for whatever reason, like stock market volatility, that can have a significant effect on us.

Which messages work best for you?

There are two groups of messages that really resonate with our donors. The first are stories centered around the gorillas: They have really complex social lives that aren’t that different from ours. We know who likes whom, who’s fighting with whom. We know every baby that’s born and every gorilla that has died. Our donors really love to hear those stories.

The other messages that work for us are centered around Dian Fossey. She is still very much an icon. Her story, and the work she did to prevent mountain gorillas from going extinct, are extremely powerful. She also taught us about our shared humanity—before Dian, gorillas were thought of as King Kong-like creatures. She revealed their gentle, family-oriented nature, and people remember her for that.

But we do a lot more than just gorillas. We’re building relationships with people in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We deliver environmental education to more than 2,000 Rwandan school kids each year. We build infrastructure like classrooms and health facilities. We help provide clean water and work to improve livelihoods.

We work with local communities because they are the ultimate stewards of those environments, and including them in our conservation activities is essential to ensuring long-term success. The gorillas have an extremely small amount of habitat left, literally stuck at the top of six volcanoes, surrounded by some of the highest-density human populations in Africa. Given the extreme poverty in the area, a lot of pressure is put on that last bit of habitat for food, wood, and water. So we must have local community buy-in. In addition, gorillas are an economic engine for the country—tourism to see gorillas is one of the top sources of foreign revenue for Rwanda. So working with local communities to protect gorillas directly helps the country and its people.

Who is your most supportive audience?

We have donors from all over the world, but a big part of our donor base is people who grew up seeing Dian on the cover of National Geographic magazine. A large number of them are women. And then we have been very lucky to have the support of individuals and foundations who believe passionately in conservation, such as Atlanta’s own Ted Turner. Mr. Turner and the Turner Foundation have been key funders of our work to save Grauer’s gorillas in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

We're really excited about engaging the younger generation. I teach and I see students who don’t know who Dian is, or her story. So using digital media like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is very important to us as we look to bring on a new generation of supporters.

What do you find most engaging or inspiring about the Fossey Fund?

The 150 staff we have in Africa, they are the people who have prevented these animals from disappearing off the face of the earth. Their jobs are physically demanding and dangerous. Rangers all over the world—including our staff—have lost their lives protecting wildlife and wild places, so their dedication is nothing short of amazing.

Photos courtesy of Dian Fossey International Gorilla Fund. 

David Terraso is communications director at GCN.

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