Once a Cryptocurrency Novice, Tree-Planting Group Lands Big Digital-Cash Gifts

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Alexa Castellano joined Trees for the Future right out of college in 2020, first as an intern and then as an associate in its small fundraising shop. The environmental organization had begun accepting cryptocurrency donations the previous year, netting just $3,450. Still, Castellano had read stories about overnight Bitcoin millionaires. “I thought there was definitely potential for fundraising,” she says.

A little more than a year later, cryptocurrency donations make up about a quarter of the group’s $2.2 million in giving from individuals and a third of its major gifts. In 2021, Trees for the Future raised $550,000 in gifts of digital cash, which it converts to traditional dollars. That total included $217,000 in cryptodonations from an artist collective that makes nonfungible tokens, digital assets often created and sold as art.

This success, Castellano says, is evidence that any nonprofit can tap into cryptophilanthropy — even if a recent college graduate with little exposure to digital currency leads the way.

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Trees for the Future

Trees for the Future trains farmers in sub-Saharan African to restore degraded land by planting trees and bushes.

Trees for the Future, which was founded in 1989, trains farmers in sub-Saharan African to restore degraded land by planting trees and bushes. Before diving into crypto, Castellano and the group’s leaders weighed the ethics of an environmental group accepting digital currency, which requires tremendous computer power and energy to manufacture. The British chapter of the World Wildlife Fund recently proposed supporting conservation work through the minting and selling of animal-related NFTs — a plan it dropped following loud cries of hypocrisy.

In her research, Castellano came to see the traditional currency system as opaque, its environmental impact — paper, printing, office buildings, computer systems, etc. — indiscernible. The energy consumption of cryptomining, by contrast, is measurable, a transparency that means the industry can more easily be held accountable.

Trees for the Future also came to trust the commitments by cryptoindustry leaders to reduce their impact. Those leaders are, like Castellano, young and worried about the future of Earth, she says. “We live with overbearing climate anxiety every day. It’s something always on our mind.”

One key question: How to engage with cryptoinvestors? They are mostly young people, and lots of their chatter about crypto takes place on Twitter. So Castellano revved up the group’s Twitter presence and pointed frequently to its impact. It also promoted donations, particularly as an environmental offset for cryptomakers and investors. The organization also devised a search-engine optimization strategy so that its name would pop up in internet searches using terms such as “environment” and “cryptocurrency”

As it built its strategy, Trees for the Future turned to the Giving Block, a company that helps nonprofits convert gifts made in more than 70 cryptocurrencies and create cryptofundraising programs. Cofounded in 2018 by Pat Duffy, a former director of systems integration at the Lupus Foundation, it has a roster of more than 1,200 clients, including such brand names such as CARE. It was recently acquired by the payment processor Shift4.

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UltraDAO

The sale of Woodies, collectible NFTs that are magical anthropomorphized creatures made of wood, raised enough money for Trees for the Future to plant a million trees.

Giving Block created a “digital wallet” for Trees for the Future through which donors make cryptogifts with just a few clicks. It also helped the group learn how to vet NFT artists and weed out potential scam groups.

The organization, Duffy said, has smartly integrated promotion of cryptogiving into year-round marketing, social-media efforts, and major-gift officer work. Many groups don’t embrace crypto so thoroughly, he adds. “There’s one person at the end of the year running around like Chicken Little saying, ‘All these groups are getting millions in cryptodonations, and we have to do something.’”

Last summer, Trees for the Future helped drive a socialmedia campaign launched by digital artist Helga Stentzel and her husband, Kirill, that encouraged NFT artists to donate to environmental groups. Not long after, an artist collective known as UltraDAO came upon Trees for the Future in an internet search. UltraDAO was creating 10,000 Woodies, collectible NFTs that are magical anthropomorphized creatures made of wood. The art is part of a story UltraDAO created about an evil logger and the search for trees that he had cut down.

The artists wanted to donate proceeds from the sale of their collection to a charity whose mission related to its story. Conversations led to a Woodies commitment to give 10 percent of its profits to Trees for the Future. Two gifts have resulted from Woodies sales proceeds: $217,000 in October, after UltraDAO sold out its inventory in 30 minutes, and another $35,000 in January. Altogether, the donations are enough to plant 1 million trees.

That impact is helping Woodies form a community for those who bought the art, says Richard Powazynski, one of the 111 members of the artists’ collective. Members are proud of the reforestation their purchases made possible, he says, and the ties to Trees for the Future have become more important than expected. The collective likely will make more contributions and continue promoting the charity’s work. Powazynski can foresee organizing tree-planting events around the world.

“This needs to be a story we continually tell and find ways to make part of our core project,” he says. “We want Trees for the Future to come into our community and talk about their impact.”

As part of her stewardship of Woodies, Castellano sent a thank-you email — a message that Woodies then put out in a Twitter thread. She continues to send handwritten thank-you notes and printed statements of impact to other big donors, but crytophilanthropy demands a different approach, says Lindsay Cobb, deputy director of marketing for the organization..

“If we sent cryptodonors that,” Cobb adds, “they’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”





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