Coming of Age

Earth Share Grows Greener Through Payroll Deductions



George Cofer
photograph by John Anderson

It's taken six years, but George Cofer can finally say that Earth Share is starting to work. In 1992, Cofer and a handful of others launched a fundraising project based on the idea that public and private sector employees ought to be able to give money to environmental groups in the same way they do to big charities: through payroll deduction plans. The project is starting to bear fruit. After driving tens of thousands of miles, making several thousand phone calls, and giving sales pitches to dozens of corporate and public entities, Earth Share of Texas has arrived. The group garnered $447,000 in pledges last year. That's a huge jump from 1996, when the group netted $270,000. Those funds will be distributed to a variety of environmental groups, including the Audubon Foundation, Save Barton Creek Association, Trees for Houston, Parks and Wildlife Foundation of Texas, and more than a dozen other groups.

Max Woodfin, the executive director of Earth Share, says that last year's jump in revenue indicates that "people are catching on to what we are doing and they like it. More people are seeing the direct links between the environment and human health."

Kevin Ronnie of the National Committee on Responsible Philanthropy, says the growth in Earth Share's pledges last year "was one of the best we've ever seen for a fund that is just a couple of years old. They have done an exceptional job of telling their story and getting their message out."

Much of the credit must go to Cofer, a rail-thin dynamo who for the past seven years has worked as the programs manager for the Save Barton Creek Association. Looking back on the past few years, Cofer says, "It was harder than I thought. The start-up period was longer than we thought it would be." Part of the long lead time came from the need to go to individual cities like Austin, Houston, and Dallas to get the various city councils to pass ordinances that would allow Earth Share to be part of an employee giving program. In addition, the group had to get a bill through the Texas Legislature in 1993 that would allow state employees to give money to Earth Share through payroll deductions. "Nobody told me we had to go to the Legislature," says Cofer with a laugh.

Cofer points out that all state and federal employees in Texas now have the opportunity to give money to Earth Share through payroll deductions. In addition, a dozen Austin companies, ranging in size from Dell Computer to Planet K, are participating in the Earth Share program. Cofer says Earth Share is hoping to add about eight new businesses to its roster this year. But getting new workplaces is a time-consuming process that in some cases can take two or three years of effort.

Although Cofer was one of the instigators of the Earth Share program - which was originally called the Environmental Fund for Texas - he earns only part of his salary from the program, splitting his time among four different charitable federations including Earth Share, Another Way Texas Shares, International Service Agencies, and America's Charities.

Earth Share executive director Woodfin says the federations are designed to provide citizens with a broader range of choices than what is available through charities like the United Way. People want "to have more choices other than the human and social service choices that are offered by the United Way," says Woodfin, who like Cofer has been a fixture of Austin's environmental community for over a decade.

And while Woodfin says Earth Share doesn't see itself as competing with United Way, information sent out last June by Gary Godsey, the head of the Capital Area United Way, indicates that the biggest charitable group in the region isn't particularly interested in sharing its turf. The letter ended by saying that contributions to United Way are "given only to organizations which are accountable and get results." And it was accompanied by a two-page summary of charitable federations - like Earth Share - which questions the way the federations divide their money, how they keep track of funds, and how they are organized.

United Way's move to limit Earth Share's entry into the charitable giving world is not just limited to Austin, says Ronnie. "United Way has historically functioned as a monopoly. It doesn't mean they are evil or bad, but they have functions of a monopoly. And they don't believe that there should be other entities operating in their field."

Local United Way officials deny the agency has a monopoly on charitable giving, and describe the entity as a "full donor-choice fundraiser" with a solid record of accountability.

The goal of Earth Share and other charitable federations is to "get more and more employers involved," Cofer says. "There are hundreds if not thousands of companies that don't do this at all. The idea is to get the word out." And while Cofer admits he is pleased with the progress that Earth Share has made, his goal is to be raising a million dollars a year. When that goal is met, he says, he might quit working 70 hours a week for a little while to take stock. In the meantime, though, he insists, "We are just barely scratching the surface."

For more information, call Earth Share at 472-5518, or go to http://www.earthshare.org.


Dugelby Returns

A decade ago, as a leader of the Austin chapter of Earth First!, she was working to protect the black capped vireo and rare cave-dwelling insects. Today, armed with a Ph.D. in tropical ecology and conservation biology from Duke University, Barbara Dugelby is back in Austin working as a staff ecologist with The Wildlands Project (TWP). The group's goal is to "rewild North America." Toward that end, the project aims to set aside large tracts of land that would be connected by "biological corridors" and buffer zones.

The switch to TWP will be quite a change for Dugelby, whose last job was in Washington, D.C. with the Nature Conservancy, one of the most conservative environmental groups. Ats the Conservancy, she worked in over a dozen Latin American countries on design and management of protected areas. TWP, whose board of directors includes Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, is unlikely to ever be considered conservative, particularly given the ambitious nature of its mission. But Dugelby says she feels like she's "back where she belongs. I left Texas in 1987 to better educate myself about biodiversity conservation, and now I'm back working with the visionary group that inspired me more than a decade ago." Contact Dugelby at 912-8689, or by e-mail at dugelby@earthlink.net.


Column Note: This will be my final "Environs" column. Instead of writing this column, I will be writing more feature stories. Have ideas? Let me know: rbryce@auschron.com.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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