By Allison Porter, President, Avalon Consulting Group
I recently met with Johannah Barry, President of the Galapagos Conservancy, to talk about her upcoming presentation at the 8th Annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference.
Johannah is a proud liberal arts major who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Medieval English Literature. She is not a scientist. Yet she is the incredibly effective, smart, and funny leader of the only nonprofit whose sole mission is to protect the Galapagos Islands and the habitats and species that make these islands so unique.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation:
Allison: Tell me about the Galapagos Conservancy and what you do for the Galapagos Islands.
Johannah: Galapagos Conservancy is solely dedicated to biodiversity conservation in the Galapagos. We are the one organization with an intimate knowledge of the Galapagos, which we have built over 30 years of working with the place and the people.
Geographically and politically, Galapagos is a dynamic place. With more and more traffic to the islands, invasive species are a huge concern. Other phenomena, like volcanic explosions and rising sea temperatures, affect the world we work in. We don’t know what the next big crisis will be. Who knew sea cucumbers were the next big delicacy? People were being shot over sea cucumber disputes!
We are managing complex science, in another country, in a different language. The most important reason why Galapagos Conservancy has been successful is that in the end, we have formed friendships there over the last 30 years. We’ve all been in the trenches together. Governments come and go, park directors and ministers go. What matters is individual relationships. We can pick up the phone and get friends and colleagues all over the world to help.
Working with any government is tricky. Generally, governments put conservation low on the scale of importance. Every Ecuadorian president has recognized the Islands’ economic importance, but not always its ecological importance. We participate in the protection of this place as friends and advisors. Galapagos is a preeminent national park, and is the first park put on the World Heritage roster. But our success boils down to relationships on the ground. Many an argument is solved over a couple of beers.
Allison: You and everyone you work with are phenomenally committed – what keeps you going?
Johannah: The opportunity to work in this unparalleled place. Plants and animals evolved without human intervention for thousands of years. We are just another creature in the universe.
Galapagos is as close to primordial as any of us can imagine. The extraordinary promise of this place is what keeps me going. We believe the Galapagos Islands have the highest potential for being uninterrupted and unchanged. This is a place the world didn’t get to yet. But the world is knocking at the door. And that scares me. All it takes is a government to decide it has another purpose for the islands. We would like to be around long enough to find five or six new secrets that will be revealed.
For example, the rosy iguana is a whole new species that was just discovered. We are able through new genetic studies to identify species and in some cases to bring them back. Floreana tortoises went extinct in the mid 1800’s. The Pinta island tortoises lost their last known individual last year. But scientists recently found tortoises on a different island that are hybrids of each of these species. It is possible to cross breed and bring these species back. It’s huge for the turtle nerds around the world. But it’s also huge for all of the rest of us.
We are blessed because we have a group of donors and supporters who get this. Galapagos is not a zoological garden. This is a dynamic and volatile place.
Allison: How does a typical day go for you?
Johannah: I start my day wondering what fresh hell is going to come over my desk. Maybe they’ll find a monkey at customs. Are people stealing animals?
Recently someone was caught with four land iguanas in his luggage leaving Galapagos. Given that there are no Galapagos iguanas in any zoo in the world and they are incredibly rare, the man will spend a couple of years in prison.
Allison: We know as good fundraisers we have to articulate what makes the Galapagos Conservancy unique and different from other organizations. What would happen if there was no Galapagos Conservancy?
Johannah: If Galapagos Conservancy didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be an agile source of funding for odd critical new problematic projects that come up. There would be plenty of standard government funding. Big, long-term projects, but there wouldn’t be the kind of scrappy turn-on-a-dime funding in the millions provided to the park and the station for the stuff that bubbles up.
Allison: We can’t talk about Galapagos without talking about Lonesome George, the late, great giant tortoise who died last year, believed to be around 100. But I also realize the story of George may scandalize some of our readers.
Johannah: In my presentation for the Bridge Conference I will be talking about tortoise sex. This is not for the faint of heart. There will be graphic stories about tortoise sex!
The biggest story is about George and whether or not his lack of interest in the ladies was by choice or by design. Dr. Linda Cayot, our science advisor and former head of herpetology at the Charles Darwin Research Station, brought an intern to Galapagos to find out if George didn’t know what to do and needed a how-to.
The intern, a Swiss woman named Sveva Grigioni spent several months attempting to stimulate George. This may be a cautionary tale about how you don’t want to spend your summer vacation — with hands covered in tortoise lubrication! Didn’t do the trick. Although he was happy to see her.
On a more serious note, I was there when he died, and we had to wrap him to prepare to freeze him. We called Dr. Joe Flannagan, chief veterinarian at the Houston Zoo to consult with local vet Marilyn Cruz during the necropsy.
Joe gave instructions about how to wrap, freeze, and transport his body downtown to the Biosecurity Institute freezer which was the only freezer on the island that was big enough and cold enough. We also had to worry about what would happen if there was a power outage.
George has been shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York where Galapagos Conservancy is paying for his preservation. He is now in New Jersey, in the hands of George Dante, the preeminent taxidermist in the country. He is stuffing and preparing Lonesome George for display, and he understands Lonesome George’s significance.
He was concerned because he didn’t know what George was going to look like upon arrival, but when he was unwrapped, he looked fabulous. The taxidermy was delayed until all parties reached agreement as to what would happen to George and the government of Ecuador signed off.
The happy end for George is that once he is ready, he will be on display at the American Museum of Natural History for three months, and a resin replica has been created to go back to Galapagos. George will ultimately go back to Ecuador and his taxidermied body will likely rest somewhere on the continent in a climate- controlled case. And of course we will need to arrange a direct flight home for him.
Allison: You recently worked on a project that placed webcams on tortoises. How did this come about?
Johannah: One of our loyal supporters called and said, “Hey, Johannah, have you ever thought of webcams in Galapagos?”
He’d seen several. One showed Antarctic penguins. Another in New York City showed hawks hatching on a windowsill. He had some extra money in his budget and offered to help out.
We had been dreaming of this project for years, and now you can log onto our website and see what the tortoises see as they roam around the breeding center on Santa Cruz.
Allison: You have really embraced direct marketing as a fundraising channel for Galapagos Conservancy. What are your biggest challenges?
Johannah: Messaging is always the biggest hurdle. Finding the correct balance of messaging and talking about what is going to sell.
As you can imagine, Lonesome George was an effective focus, but there is so much more work we do. I remember a creative strategy meeting in which there was a fire on Isabela and we had to airlift tortoises out. And we needed the money quickly. Would anyone actually be interested in funding a tortoise airlift?
Ann Herzog, the founder of Avalon Consulting Group, jumped right on it and we sent a “telegram” to our donors who responded immediately.
Moving those tortoises out of harms way was one of the most successful appeals in our history. We have found that what works are the wonky science stories that are complex, but really reflect what we do. Our constituency gets it, because they’ve all been there. They’ve traveled to the Islands and seen the wildlife and understand the pressures that this ecosystem is under. We have a constituency that is smarter than we are and we need to speak to them authentically.
I am continually astounded by the impact of our telemarketing campaigns that are so successful — donors will actually call the office to follow up because they received a message from one of our callers. And they will suggest other people to call who might have traveled with them!
We have astounding donors who have personal connections with our staff and the work we do.
Washington Post Magazine recently featured Joan Porte, who runs a travel agency, and had helped staff book travel for many years. At one point a tortoise was badly injured in a fire and needed to fly to a hospital in Gainesville, Georgia to see a specialist for treatment. In his delicate state, he couldn’t go freight. So Joan, after questioning my sanity, pulled some strings for us and arranged to put him in cargo. He was flown to Georgia where he was treated and the vet reported he was resting comfortably.
Allison: Thanks, Johannah. I look forward to seeing you at the Bridge Conference.
For additional information about Johannah Barry’s upcoming speaking engagement at the Bridge Conference, visit this website.
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