#96 The Key Steps To Be Clear and Honest With Your Favorite Nonprofit, with Brent Fenty Executive Director of The Oregon Desert Land Trust

Sep 26, 2022

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Sybil is joined by Brent Fenty to talk about his life’s work in the Oregon desert and how he has worked with donors like you to create a new organization that successfully filled a gap in desert conservation in Oregon. He discusses how donors can show up in a good way, and offers warnings of how not to show up. He explains how a donor can help leverage money and make the most of it. Brent shares his words of wisdom and the journey that led him to where he is today.

Episode Highlights:

  • How a donor can proceed to have a successful relationship with a nonprofit professional. 
  • The importance of donor clarity with a nonprofit. 


Brent Fenty bio:

Brent Fenty is the Executive Director of The Oregon Desert Land Trust and has lived and worked in Oregon’s high desert for most of his life. Before founding the Land Trust in 2017, Brent worked for nearly two decades in the region on conservation and restoration efforts to create several conservation areas and the 800-mile long Oregon Desert Trail, as the Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. His other experiences include hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, serving as a research assistant at the United Nations, volunteering for the Peace Corps in West Africa, and working as an environmental scientist in Alaska. Brent spends as much time as he can exploring Oregon’s high desert with his wife, daughter, and canine co-pilot Eddy.

Connect with Brent:



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Full Transcript

Brent, I am just tickled that you were willing to be on this podcast with me, and the reason I'm so excited to have you on this podcast Is Brent, I see you as an extremely successful fundraiser. I first met you when you were the executive director of an organization called the Oregon Natural Desert Association. And now you're the head of a brand-new land trust. Although it's been a few years, you are running a new land trust that you sort of conceived and thought of to buy land in Oregon's desert, and it's just really been so interesting to see how you navigate working with funders.

And so, first I want to talk about your journey and what got you to do what you're doing today. And then I want to talk to you about the advice you might have for us donors who may want to fund campaigns or who may want to help launch new things.

How can we show up for you in a good way and then also give us warnings of how we should not show up? So, we can't get in, we're not in your way, but we can help you leverage your money and make the most of it. So, before we get into all your words of wisdom, let's talk about what got you to what you do today. Tell me a little bit about your story.

Well, thanks Sybil for having me on This is the first podcast I've done, so it's like a new experience for me. I've been invited to do a couple of others that I've declined, so you know, I'm glad to be here today though.

I feel so special. 

Yeah, so you know, it's funny how life's odd and you end up in places you never thought you'd end up I am from Central Oregon. I didn't know. I grew up on a small ranch between Tumalo and Sisters. That's where my family lives. You know, I grew up in this region. What we did is spend most of our time either up in the Cascade mountains,

Or a lot of Time out in the high desert around Steens Mountain, the John Day country of Niwaki. And you know, I was one of those people, like many of us When we grew up, I could not get away fast enough. I thought I would move away, and I would never come back Second, you know, I'd have the good fortune to go away to college. And I spent my first work experience at the United Nations, first in New York and then in West Africa. I kind of bounced around for a while. I was always kind of focused on environmental or natural resource management issues. I spent some time in Texas.

Working for the Park Service I went from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. I eventually spent some time in Alaska, and while all of those places were incredible and I learned a lot during that time, I think what I learned the most was that Organs, high desert this place, I had the good fortune to grow up in his home.

My wife constantly gives me a hard time when we go places that I always have a knack for compared to Oregon's interior desert. We've spent our honeymoon up in the art refuge, and we're kind of backpacking along some colorful hills, and I said, "Oh, those are just like the painted hills and organ high desert in my project. 

I just love it.

So yeah, you would compare the Arctic to the Oregon High Desert, so yeah, it's funny as is You develop skills, you develop experience. You spend time in the world. You think about where you want to be. Do your good, as they say. You know, I found myself wanting to come back to Oregon's high desert and try to contribute to conserving some of the places that are so meaningful to me in such a way.

And they were a huge part of my childhood and upbringing, and they are now, thankfully, a huge part of my family and my daughters' upbringing as well. Certain places are changing a lot, so we're seeing a lot of change here in Central Oregon across the state population growth. I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute in my small way to resource tensions, climate change, and so on. You know, to an area that I care a lot about.

Well, let's talk about that for a minute, too. So, when you were executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, you were working on a variety of projects, including campaigns to protect the big game. as well as, you know, really working with volunteers. And I know you did; you created a trail as well. But talk to me a little bit about your relationship with donors in some of these campaigns and how you worked with donors to be successful.

Yeah, through my work at Oregon Natural Desert Association, better known as ONDA, it is a campaign-focused organization that works, you know, often through the lens of advocacy through fed, you know, federal conservation designations are examples.

So, through that, I worked on it Like you, I made efforts to protect Steens Mountain as a wilderness or cooperative management and protection area back in 2000. Places like the Badlands Wilderness, spring-based, and Modern, the organ of the Oregon Desert Trail, that’s an 800-mile route that starts in the Badlands east of Bend and goes all the way to the Idaho border and all of those to your pointer campaigns.

They are the result of many people, various groups, landowners, and eight federal and state agencies. They are kind of coming together and figuring out, like, how do we manage these areas for the public benefit for the long term? And yeah, that's a lot of what that work focused on was campaigns. Then, a critical part of that is being able to fund the people and provide the resources needed for those campaigns to be successful and so on, it's indirectly you that you realize you're going to have to fundraise.

You're going to have to find the resources needed to make these campaigns successful, and that was my introduction to fundraising, and I still, to this day, don't consider myself a fundraiser. I know because I meet daily with different people who are contributing to these efforts. These are different. They work in different ways.

Some of those people donate money, some donate time, and some donate experience. Everyone gives in different ways. Well, Brent, that's something I want to highlight because that's one of the reasons I think you're so good at fundraising is because you don't.

I'm a person that works for funders, and I don't think of you as someone who's pitching me. You're just talking about the work, getting me excited to work and support the work you're doing, and then the donors So, give you funding, and you just treat us like people. Here are the nuts and bolts. You'll tell us when things aren't going well and when they are.

So, I appreciate that.  Can you tell me some stories about good relationships with donors that you've had and when it's worked Well, and then let's pivot over to when it hasn't worked that well Words of caution, yeah, I think you know one. I appreciate that. I'm glad it feels that way. Yeah, I think. You've known me long enough, and hopefully, others that know me.

Yeah, it's just passion It's just that I want to work with people who want to work. On the issues that you know are important to both of us, and you know the thing that I see is the folks that I work with on the funding side of things that I feel like it's most successful.

Some people know what they want upfront and how they want to show up. They have Their kind of looking at you to see whether you have shared values, whether you have kind of a shared approach to how to do this work.

And I think that's fundamental, and I think it can be missed at times I think we sometimes focus on an outcome that we want, but we don't focus necessarily on how we're going to get there, and that can create tensions if you have a certain outcome and you want it to be accomplished by collaboration, but you're supporting a group.

That is, you know, more on, like, straight-up advocacy or even litigation. That's going to create tension. It's not going to be successful And so I think it's really important to understand not only what the outcome means but also have agreement on it.

How do you get to that outcome? And I think that comes from really looking at an organization and asking, "Do they have a plan, a clear plan on how they're going to get there? Do they have the necessary personnel? Can they implement that plan, and do they have systems in place that can help those people accomplish that work? And sometimes one of those things is missing. Sometimes multiple parts of them are missing. But I know when I look at organizations. That's a question I always ask.

I like that also. Thanks for that. And I would love that you said a donor must be clear about what they want first Because it seems like in talking to me about your successful relationships with folks where donors are clear, that's indicating that if a donor isn't clear, it can end up being a tough situation in the end because they'll expect something different from what you can deliver.

Yeah, precisely. I think when I've had, you know. More difficult relationships. I don't view every relationship as a learning opportunity. I love sitting down with these folks, I feel like in every conversation I hope to learn something that makes the work we do better. I think it makes me more effective at the work I do. But sometimes you'll have a supporter who comes in and says, "You know, I want to support this effort."

They come at it from a perspective that rather than also being open to learning and understanding that they have solutions or knowledge that maybe they don't have or they're still developing. I think that's less problematic because you learn together and you figure those things out, and it's a two-way street.

I think it's more problematic or challenging or can be when a donor comes into an organization and expects an organization to do something they wouldn't normally do. This isn't consistent with the mission, and again, this isn't consistent. With kind of the approach that they do work and, you know, we all know that if you're in a nonprofit, you cannot do things for private benefit.

You're doing things that are for the public benefit that benefit communities, you know, our regions. And so, I always feel like that's a challenging line is when people come in with their ideas of like, hey, you should take on for me running a land trust now, it's really helpful when people point out properties that hey, you should look at this, and that can be educational and help turn us on to a property that we should be evaluating.

But it has to fit all the priorities that we've set up, and the systems we've set up because we've done a lot of analysis to understand where we should be focusing our limited time, energy, and resources and we can't just do that for one person. We have to do it for the collective good.

Thanks for that and let's now talk about the organization you're running now because you identified a gap and now, you're filling it with this land trust. Let's talk about your journey there. Time goes by so fast that I feel like you just started it, but it's probably been like 5 years now, huh?

Yeah, we're going on year five. The organization, Oregon Desert Land Trust, was formed in 2017. But as anyone knows who's developed an organization, there's a bit of onboarding, IRS process, all of that, that goes into it. So, I'd say the work started in earnest in 2018, and you know that the Oregon Desert Land Trust, or Oh, DLT, was born out of prior experience that myself and many others had working on public lands conservation in Organs, High Desert, and we just came to understand that there was a gap that needed to be filled that was focused on these private lands.

They are kind of integral to land conservation and restoration throughout the region, both on wild and what we call wild and working lands, so when the organization was formed, it was focused on conserving these wild and working private lands for people and wildlife.

And we're focused on working with tribes, with ranchers, with public land managers, and a lot of other conservation organizations, and you know, thus far we've conserved about 20 thousand acres of private land through about a dozen different acquisitions and about half a million acres of grazing permits on surrounding public land.

And so, you know, our focus is really on how these lands can contribute to climate resilience, to wildlife connectivity, to sustainable livestock grazing, to cultural preservation, you know, and public access. And, you know, that's what the group has been focused on for the last several years.

I love that. And can you tell me a story about one of your favorite donor stories around the land trust work, especially when you were starting? How did donors help you with, you know, the initiation of this work? And I know that there's one particular property you love So tell me a little bit about that. How are the donors? helped you launch this.

Well, yeah, it is a lot of work to start a new organization, and I feel incredibly blessed that, you know, other organizations supported US groups like the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and the Land Trust Alliance. I can't, you know, overstate the importance of having partners like that that had prior experience starting land trusts and helping.

Brent, the first thing you mentioned was nonprofit partners. So, thanks for that, because that is super important, and as a donor and a person who works with donors, I'm always looking to see if a new group or the other nonprofit is supporting that new group.

Is it a gap that needs to be filled that the nonprofit community itself has identified, right, so that you're not just coming in there and elbowing out people? But that's not what happened here.

You know, our goal was to fill a niche that nobody else was filling, and those other organizations helped us identify kind of where our service area was, how to partner with neighboring land trusts like the Deschutes Land Trusts, or the Blue Mountain Land Trust, or the Klamath Lake Land Trust for us and so it was an amazing experience, and, you know, I'm ever grateful for, you know, helping us get started, and similar on the funding front, I had the good fortune to have worked with folks like you and other foundation partners. We did have some upfront, and you know, a few folks that stepped in and had the vision to say, "We want to support We believe there's an opportunity here. They gave us essentially three years of upfront funding to kind of get started, you know? For folks like us, the Brainard Foundation was our foundation. Others provided some of that initial start-up funding. And that was huge. It allowed us to make mistakes that allowed us to kind of figure out what types of properties we should look at.

They were, you know, the most important It allowed us to develop relationships and an understanding of the kind of person our primary partners were going forward. And yeah, that was what was critical Things moved pretty quickly at that point, and we had the opportunity to take on some large projects. And 75% of our work right now, I would say, is focused on a property we call the Trout Creek Ranch in the Pueblo Mountain Conservation Project. That was in mid-2021.

Last year, we closed on that property of about 17,000 acres and about half a million acres of associated grazing permits on surrounding public lands and that was, you know, a lot for a little organization, and you know, I again, a lot of folks. I'm always impressed by how many funders want to support these kinds of efforts behind the scenes.

So I'm always a little reluctant to put names out there because I, you know, don't want to out someone that doesn't want to be outed, but you know, something we heard early on in that effort was, you know, just this belief that an organization, even despite our small size, you know, was the right organization to take on a significant project like this because of the relationships we had, because of the knowledge of the region that we work in, and that was, you know, heartening to see that vote of confidence and folks stepped up. It's about a $20 million project.

$15 million of that was, budgeted to come from private sources. We had a great partnership, and we can continue to have a great partnership with the Nature Conservancy's Oregon chapter, which helped us fundraise for the property. We can't. And to date, we've raised about $14.2 million of that $15 million private fundraising goal. It was a huge lift and if that lift continues, obviously we have about $800,000 to go but you know, I am just struck by the way donors showed up throughout that process. I have a family that I've known for a long time, and their gifts are usually somewhere, around $1 to $5000. 

We sat down. We talked about this project and chokes me up a little bit, even thinking about it Still, they said, "Well, what do you need? And I, you know, you know me, I'm not the best fundraiser. I just said, "Hey, I believe if everyone steps up, the way that they can, this acquisition will make it happen, and they said OK. And so, they went back, and it came back a week later and gave $320,000 to the project. It was, yeah, beyond anything I could have imagined. And that happened time and again throughout this process. So, you know, it's always really humbling to see how. People step up how they make these things happen. Yeah, it's pretty incredible.

That's a wonderful story, Brent. And just a wonderful story too, of hope and people giving back in such a good way and you're very humble, but it does say a lot about you that people believe in you.

And, when you say you're going to get something done, people say, "Yeah, well, we'll step up because you're going to be able to get it done right, Brent," so hats off to you. This was a great conversation. Thank you.

Any final words of wisdom for us as funders who are listening and considering how to be the best donors and show up in the best way possible for people like us?

I don't know one. I would tend to go down the path of, you know, focusing on the leadership when one person. But I think that's been well covered and I'm sure all your listeners know this is not me doing this work. There are a whole lot of people doing this work, but I think the piece that I'd make a pitch on is that it's sometimes not that things are small in terms of giving, and you know the scale of giving and how you can support different organizations, but sometimes it's small in terms of the types of groups you support as well.

I have had many opportunities to work for larger national and multinational organizations, and I just feel so strongly that these small organizations are kind of the key to community, you know?

to, you know, getting good work done in the region. And, you know, they have small budgets, they don't have as many fancy brochures or handouts, but I believe that if I can encourage people to get involved in those organizations, I will be successful. Give financially if they can, but also recognize the skills and relationships experience that each of us has and figure out how you can apply those as well to make these organizations as successful as possible.

Thanks, Brent.

That's great advice, and thanks for your time again, and I look forward to seeing you in Bend next time I'm visiting.

Thanks. Thank you so much.

Maybe I'll bring my horses next time. Yeah, exactly, exactly. I hope it works out next. All right. Thank you. Thanks again.

All right, take care.