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Donors Making a Difference

John Woollam

As a University of Nebraska professor, entrepreneur, conservationist, physicist, and philanthropist, Dr. John Woollam wears many hats. His passion for conservation began through his love of exploring the lakes and lands of his native Michigan. It now extends to far-flung locales, from the prairies of Nebraska to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest to the Caribbean, where John and his wife Cyndi love to sail and explore the reefs.

“Every major supporter of a charity is constantly asking, what am I getting for my contributions? They want to make sure that the money they invest is making a difference. So the question is, where can I have the biggest impact?

I’m really interested in matching grants—both responding to them, and establishing them. There are a lot of beautiful places around Michigan that really should be saved, and I work with the local land trusts there to see that they get protected. Every year for the last several years I’ve put challenge matches out to the land trusts, like the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, the HeadWaters Land Conservancy, and so on. The challenge is for them to find new donors and get more money from existing donors, as well.

The Nature Conservancy is the only group with the global perspective and the financial resources to take on global projects, where you try to save entire ecosystems. I love the small local land trusts, but somebody has to do the big picture as well—that’s The Nature Conservancy.

But it’s a gamble. In the Great Bear and the Caribbean, it’s the first time I’ve supported something where its ultimate impact is not clear yet. These projects will take decades; these are conceptually very different than the old days of purchasing easements or land. Measuring how you make progress is going to be harder to do.

That’s why we need to always stay accountable—report to donors on what their money is doing. I want to see the real results on the ground. It’s great to be global, but in the end global ideas have to have local impact. And people who have the means need to step up, take a gamble, and see if we can make 'big picture' programs work.”

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