The Pacific Salmon Foundation is a nonprofit that focuses on rebuilding and improving the ecosystems for salmon. Running a massive organization with such a unique structure as this charity has is a one-in-a-kind challenge. We get taken into the ins-and-outs of the Pacific Salmon Foundation by Allison Colina, Vice President of Development, Marketing, and Communications. In this episode, she talks us through her journey from healthcare to becoming a social profit leader. She also gives insights on how the community and government policy play a part in the charity’s conservation efforts.
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Pacific Salmon Foundation With Allison Colina
Welcome to the show. On our show, we have a very special guest, Allison Colina. She’s the Vice President, Marketing and Communications, and Development at the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Welcome, Allison.
Thanks, Doug. I’m happy to be here with you.
There is a lot we’re going to talk about in terms of switching sectors from healthcare to conservation, coming from a primarily marketing and communications role to one that includes development. I want to start off with the big question we’re asking our guests this season. What is your first memory of service or philanthropy that you can share with us?
My first memory is related to school-based programming and participating in Jump Rope for Heart. I remember the program well. I remember collecting the door-to-door donations. I remember trying to reach certain levels so you could get that Frisbee or whatever the little gimmicky item was that they rewarded you with based on your activity level and fundraising. It also probably sticks with me because stroke is something that has impacted my family quite significantly through my grandmother and great-grandmother. It was something that probably our parents got behind and helped us with as well.
Thank you for sharing that. That is a great story and a good first memory. Did you know when you were doing that activity that you were going to dedicate your career to work in the social profit sector?
No, I did not have that foresight. I did not see that trajectory at that time.
We’ll get into your journey to your position in a moment. For our readers who might not be as familiar, can you tell us a little bit about the role of the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the great work you do?
If something doesn’t work the way you thought, go back to the drawing board and figure out the next thing you should try.
The Pacific Salmon Foundation is a not-for-profit based here in Vancouver. We’re focused on saving and restoring Pacific salmon. The organization is charitable. We raise funds, but we also have scientific programs as well as community-based programs. We grant out to community partners around the province and volunteers who are doing work in their local streams to rebuild habitats and help improve the ecosystems for salmon.
I am curious about the organization because your work is very local and tactical, like the salmon ladder construction and spawning rivers to big policy research kinds of work. How do you find it communicating that broad scope activity to various stakeholders and audiences you’re trying to communicate to?
Within our group, and this is something since I joined in 2021 that we’ve been trying to dig into and understand our audience profiles a lot better, is there are some clear segments. Government is a huge segment for us because they control the policy. With the big research projects, it’s important to have an open line of communication with the government and other big stakeholder partners who are executing work in key watersheds.
We then go all the way down to having people who internally refer to themselves as salmon nerds. They love everything about Pacific Salmon. They want to hear everything that’s going on, and they’re often folks who volunteer at the community level. Trying to pick through the information and figure out what is going to be of most interest to those groups is something we’re still working on, but overall, most people are hungry for information. We’ve established some regular communication channels, and they’ve had a positive uptake across our mass following.
You’ve got many audiences doing lots of activity. In your role, how do you prioritize the stories you’re going to tell or the parts of your organizational purpose that you’re going to highlight?
It’s not easy because, within our programs, you have to be active. Within any given month, there are numerous papers or new data sets that are coming out for us to communicate. What we look at is, what is the value of this knowledge transfer into the community? Can the community do something about this or do something with it? We prioritize it that way. Secondary to that, for instance, two major papers came out in relation to a very hot topic where the government is making some significant policy decisions around salmon farms. That’s a significant priority for us to push that out to the masses to make sure that people are aware of that research and that data.
You’re not doing this in three-year planning cycles. This sounds like you’re doing it in a little tighter timeframe.
I would love to do it on a yearly planning cycle, but we look at it quarterly and then have to break it down by week. We meet with our program directors on a monthly basis, and they can give us a heads up of what’s in their pipeline coming down and what we can plan for. That’s probably as long-term as we can look out.
It sounds like you’re often balancing the urgency and the opportunity to tell the story of the organization, which requires a great deal of flexibility in the storytelling that you’re doing. How do you balance that with the need for rigor and discipline in the schedule of fundraising and holding both of those timelines’ intentions at the same time?
There are some times when you can plan out, and everything falls into place, but there are other times when you’re thrown some very timely communication that you need to get out. It might be overlapping or competing with your fundraising strategy. We’ve taken the approach that we’ll deal with that in real-time, take it back, and figure out, “Is that too much to communicate to our audiences in one week? Do we segment? Do we try and layer them in close sequence to work to the best of the organization?”
I assume most of your donors are concerned about conservation and salmon in particular, when you’re talking at a policy level and are more interested in a programmatic level. They see the connection between the policy work and the work that’s happening in a community or their own community, perhaps.
A lot of our donors and supporters are highly engaged from a policy perspective. There is a careful walk between the evidence and the research that the organization is putting out in terms of what that means for policy. Sometimes, people can get ahead and want to push for a policy before they have that evidence. As an organization, we’re not a pointy-sworded advocacy organization, but we’re producing the independent science that can lead to informed policy decisions.
I want to step back and talk about your career, the skillset you have, and how you’re applying it to your role by going back. Prior to being at Pacific Salmon Foundation, you were at the BC Cancer Foundation. You led a successful rebranding of that organization and made that organization into a great storytelling and fundraising organization.
You weren’t working directly with the fundraising side of the house. Now, you have fundraising as a part of your portfolio. You’ve made that shift from healthcare to conservation. Let’s start there. What is the difference between working in a prominent, fast-moving healthcare charity and moving to a prominent, fast-moving conservation charity?
If it feels forced, it probably is.
The differences are vast. It’s taking a leap into a completely different sector that operates differently. Some of the differences aren’t as immediate and tangible as they can be in healthcare. The other piece is there are many layers in a conservation organization. Healthcare deals with government as well but in government policy. There are a lot of complicating factors when you are also bringing resource management into the fold.
It has been a significant learning curve, to say the least, in terms of subject matter, understanding all those layers of who’s responsible for what and what you can communicate without creating a series or sequence of issues, and then also figuring out within that how do you tell a story that connects with donors and potential donors that makes them want to act and give. It’s not as clear-cut and emotionally driven as healthcare. Trying to find those new ways to connect people to the cause, the land, and the fish is a learning curve.
You knew that this was going to be different. What was the biggest surprise as you came through the door and started to settle in over your first few months on the difference between a conservation organization versus a healthcare organization?
The biggest surprise was the complexity of the environment in which it sits. Those are the pieces that I touched on around the governmental layers because it’s federal, provincial, and gets into regional. Simultaneously, you have major components around reconciliation taking place, fisheries management, and then you also have an industry that has an opinion and a voice. It creates a complex environment in which you’re going to communicate and find ways to fundraise that don’t necessarily alienate your existing donor base.
That was a significant learning curve and surprise. It’s something we have to work through because part of that is the organization has been going through an evolution and is focusing more on the impacts of climate change. While it’s going through that evolution, we’re also looking at who are the donors who want to support this new area of research and focus on the organization.
You’re telling that bigger story, even bigger than the fish or the conservation, to that global climate change and making that tangible to people who are more focused on community. You’ve mentioned a couple of times about layering fundraising. You’ve been a champion for brands anywhere you’ve worked and helped build organizations through their brands. Now, you’ve got fundraising responsibility. How did you find that muscle or that motion as you took that on?
For full transparency, it was something that I was apprehensive about. I don’t have a background in fundraising. I’m not a professional fundraiser by any stretch. I had the luxury of working around amazing fundraisers in the past decade through the BC Cancer Foundation. I’ve leaned on that network and the learnings from working closely, thankfully, in my past role at BC Cancer Foundation.
Marketing and communications were pretty highly integrated with a lot of the fundraising teams, especially the more public-facing fundraising teams. I started to realize how much I’ve picked up along the way as I got into it when it’s now under my responsibility. I’ve taken it in stride and relied on some people for their wonderful advice. We’re in a position where we want to grow our donor base at PSF, so there’s a lot of testing. We’re trying to have fun and learn from what we’re doing. If something doesn’t work the way we thought, we go back to the drawing board and figure out the next thing we should try.
How have you found the idea of not only communicating the messages that donors are going to receive but being the one that is communicating it to donors? Was that a comfortable jacket to put on?
It was more comfortable than I anticipated it would be. Wise folks in the past have said that you know when it’s right to have that conversation with a donor. As much as you need to ask a question, if it feels forced, it probably is. It’s much more of a natural evolution in a conversation than I had anticipated.
A former colleague of ours used to say that if you think you’re overthinking it, you are. Do it and have those conversations, and move on. It is rare or less common for people from the communication side to take on fundraising. There are a lot of fundraisers who move into organizations and take on communication. You’ve got a different way through it. What advice would you have to someone who was contemplating making the same transition that you did?
It’s two-fold. One, it’s important to have experience within a nonprofit and to have been exposed to fundraising to be able to make that transition because there’s a lot of learning that will have occurred from being a part of that organization. The other significant piece within that is that there are people within our industry who are so open to sharing. I find that significant within the environmental NGO sector. There’s a huge openness to share and learn from each other, and people want to have that dialogue, so lean on your community.
That’s great advice in any situation. How has being responsible for the fundraising messaging and the fundraising results impacted the way you tell the story or think about building the brand at BSF?
If we start with a brand piece, I believe that the brand is part and parcel of your organization’s mission and strategy. We went through a brand exercise. I wouldn’t say there was a lot in terms of shifting because the organization already had a solid strategy in place, so it was more about how you would present it in a more public-friendly way.
What donors want to see is their dollars doing really great work.
In terms of how we do that fundraising lens influences the communication side, I would say absolutely in thinking about not only what’s timely communication based on the research and activity that’s coming out of the organization, but also what are the stories that are going to showcase impact in a way that people want to consider reinvesting in the organization. It’s important across any organization whether the rules are combined or separated. If you’re doing marketing and communications for a nonprofit, that lens is still important in terms of what our donors want to see. They want to see their dollars doing great work. That’s driving the communication.
When you’re thinking about telling those stories and thinking of those donors, is there one person or one situation you’ve encountered at PSF that comes to the top of your mind that’s like, “This is who we’re communicating to and the people we need to engage?”
For us, that’s a split. There are the people with whom we’re communicating, and there are also the people with who we want to be reaching out and connecting. They’re pretty different audiences. We think about that a lot with our communication that goes to the donors, but then what we might put out and promote to the public might have a bit of a different messaging to it.
You’re building a bridge between what the organization was historically to what you aspire to be in the future. How do you approach moving the donors or communicating with the donors so that they, as many of them as possible, come with you across that bridge?
That’s a super important factor in terms of what the organization and we are doing because we need them to come along that journey with us. The base of donors that we have is incredibly important to the organization and the success that we’ll have. It’s showcasing the new work in a way that’s motivating. It answers the why and why this is important. The research has evolved with what’s happening in the environment, so we can continue to communicate and show that evolution and show the why, like why we need to react this way or why we need to put this program in place. I do think that people can come along that journey with us.
As you’re building that bridge, what’s one thing you wish everyone, whether longtime supporters of the organization or potential future supporters of the organization, knew about PSF?
The one thing that I wish everyone knew was how much action the organization contributes to our environment. From our fundraising and granting programs in the community right through to our Marine Science program, there’s work happening that’s actionable, whether it’s planting vegetation, kelp, and things that are making a difference in the here and now. That’s quite different from a lot of ENGOs. It’s something that sets us apart.
The scope of your action and the levels at which you’re working are impressive. Having had both fundraising and marketing and communications hats, could you ever go back to marketing and communications, or has fundraising won your heart over?
This might be the wrong audience, but I do. My passion for marketing and communications is alive and well for me, so the answer to that is yes. It’s a robust and fulfilling portfolio, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy all of the work from a fundraising side and a lot more than I probably anticipated going in.
You’ve had this great experience in both healthcare and conservation with great organizations. You’ve had this perspective from health and conservation. This is your magic wand question. If you could change one thing about the way the broader social profit sector works, what would you change in terms of either effectiveness or communications or the way that the dollars are raised?
The context in a lot of my career in health and then moving into the environmental sector has influenced how I’d answer that. One thing I wish that I could change with a magic wand is the perception of climate change in the environment. There’s this doom and gloom mentality that maybe as an individual, our actions can’t be enough. That’s something in the ENGO sector that we need to collectively try and change and showcase that our actions and contribution all add up and matter. It’s more of a perception around the fact that we can make a difference and try and reverse some of the effects of climate change that are happening.
What a great way of encapsulating that need for optimism and reinforcement of positive action. As we come to the end of our conversation, I want to ask you a very straightforward question. What are you most looking forward to as you look ahead over the next couple of months or even the rest of 2022?
We’ve launched a new brand, and we’re also about to launch a few trial programs from monthly donors. We’re also in the midst of a million-dollar fundraising campaign for a program. Those factors combined have me motivated as we go in to see what’s going to work, what’s not, and what we can then glean from the results of our outreach to donors and the public to help shape 2023. 2022 has been a learning year for us, so in 2023, we’ll have even more information to help guide those decisions and even be more successful as we try and bring on new donors.
I have no doubt that you will be successful. You’re one of the best storytellers I’ve encountered in the sector. I appreciate the work that you are doing there at Pacific Salmon Foundation. I wish you and your colleagues all the best. Thank you for being on the show.
Thanks so much, Doug. What a pleasure.
About Allison Colina
Allison Colina is currently the Vice President of Development, Marketing and Communications at the Pacific Salmon Foundation with a focus on new donor growth and public awareness to help save and restore wild Pacific salmon. Allison previously worked as a member of senior leadership at the BC Cancer Foundation where she led marketing and communications and supported organization strategy and annual revenue growth. She also led the organization through a re-brand and advanced digital marketing in support of events and annual fundraising strategies. Allison worked with medical and scientific leadership and major donors managing media announcements for scientific and medical breakthroughs.