The Primordial PAC Soup
How one of the best models in fundraising came from two brainstorming biologists
By Wapiti Wire staff
Two short years after the RMEF was established, when founders were busy fine-tuning business plans and settling into operation models, two longtime elk biologists sat down and brainstormed a few “what ifs.” Little did they know, these what-if daydreams would come to set the Elk Foundation apart from other fundraising organizations for decades into the future.
“They had this idea that it would be really cool to leave the money in the state it came from to do projects, as long as there are elk there,” said Tom Toman, RMEF’s director of science and planning.
Alan Christensen and Jack Lyon were the daydreaming biologists. And their what-ifs born in 1986 were the primordial soup that spawned RMEF’s Project Advisory Committees (PAC).
What if every state with wild elk could keep half of all the money raised in the state?
What if that money had to be spent on elk projects in the state?
What if we could create committees of experts in each state to evaluate project proposals and recommend funding?
These were the questions that turned out to build a unique organization as the Elk Foundation evolved.
Lyon, who spent 40 years as a research biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Montana, became one of the first PAC members. He was also an RMEF Life Member and Habitat Partner.
“The PAC program was uniquely designed to provide the most on-the-ground results with the least loss through overhead expenses,” Lyon told Bugle magazine in a January-February 2011 story about PACs.
Christensen warmed to the idea so much he left his Forest Service wildlife biologist position to become the Elk Foundation’s first field director.
“From Day One we wanted to be able to say honestly that our elk projects reflected the best knowledge in the professional circles as far as need and impact were concerned,” he said.
Another wildlife biologist soon entered RMEF’s sights—Gary Wolfe, who had gotten a Ph.D. studying elk population dynamics in New Mexico. He became the second RMEF field director.
Wolfe and Christensen were the first to field-test the PAC idea. In those early days, they split the western U.S. between them, Christensen in the north and Wolfe in the south. Colorado was the first state to establish a PAC, in 1986.
“We didn’t have a lot of money for projects at the start,” Wolfe told Bugle. “We felt the way we spent it should be driven by the needs of the agency and wildlife professionals in the states where we were working.”
What Wolfe and Christensen uncovered was that the PAC model also was a great way for state agencies and wildlife professionals to engage with RMEF at a crucial time, when the Elk Foundation was still an unknown and unrecognized entity.
The PAC requirements played a big role in this. The rules were, and remain: To establish a PAC, the state must have a wild, free-roaming elk population that is managed by the state wildlife agency with an elk management plan in place. Once that is met, the PAC is formed with biologists from the state agency, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and a university professor from the wildlife management department. The RMEF regional director and state volunteer chair round out the table.
The same PAC formula has been in place ever since, continuing to help build RMEF’s credibility and accountability to the point where 28 PACs across the country now dole out millions of dollars every year for habitat and wildlife projects. In 2015, PACs across the country recommended 244 projects for funding and allocated $2.8 million RMEF funds to accomplish those.
Part of the secret of why the PAC structure works so well is that decisions are kept at home, where the project funding will be used. It allows for local experts to evaluate and decide on the projects that are best for their area.
“To have that wealth of knowledge is key. We’re in Montana and don’t know what’s going on in Socorro, New Mexico, or Yakima, Washington. Nobody has the breadth of knowledge to be able to make those decisions for projects across the country,” said Toman.