Linking Donors: The Private Funding Behind the Appalachian Trail

Photo:  William Silver/shutterstock

Photo:  William Silver/shutterstock

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is an interesting animal in that, not unlike the huge trail itself, it links together a lot of varied parts. The nonprofit is a cooperative of local, state and federal government agencies, and 31 local organizations looking after a footpath that spans 14 states and more than 2,000 miles. 

As you can imagine, working across that many geographies and entities on such a large task warrants some serious fundraising to provide connective tissue. As with other groups sticking up for treasured public lands (notably, the National Park Foundation), the conservancy has been working to bump up its fundraising, and recently landed a $3 million grant from a Virginia family foundation.

That’s a pretty big score when it comes to trails philanthropy. Then again, the AT is not just any trail, running from Georgia to Maine and serving some 3 million hikers a year. The latest grant will fund efforts to protect the trail’s lands, waters and cultural features, as a large component of the conservancy’s mission includes land protection, management and other conservation efforts for its more than 250,000 acres of public lands.

Related: Asking and Getting: Behind the Surge of Philanthropic Support for the National Park Service

The money comes from the Volgenau Foundation, which is the small, Virginia-based family foundation of Ernst and Sara Volgenau. Ernst Volgenau is the founder of SRA International, an information technology company that serves the federal government (it has since become CSRA after a merger). The foundation gives to a mix of conservation, education and arts. The Appalachian Trail grant seems to be on the higher end for the funder, although in 2014 the couple gave $2 million to UCLA’s engineering school, and back in 2005, gave $10 million to George Mason University’s School of Information Technology and Engineering. 

Other foundation environment grantees include the Land Trust Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, plus some regional projects like the Piedmont Environmental Council and Potomac Conservancy. So the AT gift is likely motivated by a mix of the environmental importance of the land, plus some regional pride. The foundation highlights place-based conservation as one of its priorities. 

Since the Appalachian Trail Conservancy started in 1925, not too long after the idea for the trail itself came about, it has developed into a pretty serious friends-of group. The nonprofit now has a $9.4 million budget and about 60 employees. Its current strategic plan is to bump up fundraising revenues from $3.2 million in 2013 to $5.3 million by 2019. 

Most of its funding comes from its 43,000 members, which it's working to grow, but it also has a bunch of corporate partners that include Google, Osprey and REI. Not a ton of institutional funders are in the mix, although the Georgia-based Kendeda Fund is on the list.  

This big grant for the Appalachian Trail comes amid a surge of philanthropic giving for parks, plus a notable increase in private funding toward the National Park Service from individuals, foundations and corporations alike. We’ve also seen some pretty big giving for trail systems, particularly for the Atlanta BeltLine, a network of rails-to-trails projects, and support from the William Penn Foundation for The Circuit, an expansive project in Greater Philadelphia.

Of course, while donors are willing to step up, there is a dark backdrop to such donations, as protections are gutted by Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior, leaving public lands more vulnerable than they have been in many years.