National Wildlife Federation

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Nonprofit Organization
The National Wildlife Federation is an organization at the forefront of wildlife protection efforts in the United States. The mission of the National Wildlife Federation involves “uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world”



The National Wildlife Federation is an organization at the forefront of wildlife protection efforts in the United States. The mission of the National Wildlife Federation involves “uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world” (Mission and Strategic Plan, n.d.). To support its mission, the National Wildlife Federation has developed what is calls a Common Agenda with three central ideas. The Common Agenda represents the broad, large-scale goals of the organization. These ideas are: the protection, restoration, and connection of wildlife habitat; the transformation of wildlife conservation; and the connection of Americans with wildlife (Mission and Strategic Plan, n.d.).   

The National Wildlife Federation has also established several metrics of success. These metrics are a form of accountability for the organization to ensure it is fulfilling the Common Agenda. By 2021, the National Wildlife Federation will “activate 11 million people to join forces with 2,500 partner organizations as part of America’s conservation army,” “put 25 percent of America’s at-risk wildlife species on a path to recovery…by securing at least $2 billion in additional annual conservation funding”, and engage “25 million young people across 20,000 schools in environmental education and recurring outdoor experiences” (Mission and Strategic Plan, n.d.). Today, the National Wildlife Federation is headquartered in Reston, Virginia and works in conjunction with 51 affiliates across the country that encourage grassroots participation in nationally-focused issues. 


Historic Roots 

The history of the National Wildlife Federation dates back to 1936 when the organization was formally founded; however, there were several important historical events that preceded the establishment of the organization. One of these key historical events was the Martin v. Wadell Supreme Court case in 1872. It was from this case that the Public Trust Doctrine was instituted, which essentially put forth the concept that “wildlife belongs to the people” (History and Heritage, n.d.). Unfortunately, during the late 19th century, America’s wildlife populations were obliterated. President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, responded to this crisis by endowing 230 million acres to conserve wildlife in 1909 (History and Heritage, n.d.). This marked the first time that conservation as a basic value was supported by the American government.  

In 1934, a cartoonist and conservation enthusiast J.N. “Ding” Darling was appointed as the director of the Bureau of Biological Survey. He resigned only a year later; however, his passion of conservation remained. He convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to hold a meeting for over 2,000 conservationists from across the United States (History and Heritage, n.d.). It was at this inaugural North American Wildlife Conference that the General Wildlife Federation was established and Darling was named the president of the Federation. The North American Wildlife Conference ultimately inspired its participants to create affiliate federations in their own states, which are now central to the organizational structure of the National Wildlife Federation today. In 1938, the name of the organization was changed to the National Wildlife Federation. (History and Heritage, n.d.).  



One of the most evident reasons why the efforts of the National Wildlife Federation are important is because wildlife populations are rapidly declining in the United States and all over the world. In fact, in the next few decades over one third of fish and wildlife species in America could become extinct (Saving America’s Wildlife: Toward a Common Agenda, n.d.). There are four major contributors to the decline of wildlife populations according to the National Wildlife Federation. First, there have been significant changes in land use. These changes include the more than 200 million acres of industrial farms; urban sprawl; and almost 4 million miles of highways. Next, three-quarters of waterways in America have been negatively altered such that they harm wildlife habitat. Climate change and the rising sea level directly threaten wildlife as well as intensify these other contributors. Lastly, invasive species and wildlife diseases endanger wildlife and wildlife habitats (Saving America’s Wildlife: Toward a Common Agenda, n.d.).  

Another reason why the work of the National Wildlife Federation is important is because of the value of wildlife. Wildlife has a clear economic value; according to the organization “more than 140 million Americans engage in outdoor recreation annually, generating more than $887 billion in economic activity and supporting 7.6 million jobs. Much of this economic activity takes place in rural communities that have been disproportionately impacted by changes in the national and global economy” (Saving America’s Wildlife: Toward a Common Agenda, n.d.). Wildlife is also valuable in the ecosystem services it provides. For example, natural wildlife habitats give humans clean water, cooler air temperatures, groundwater recharge, water retention, and support for pollinators (Saving America’s Wildlife: Toward a Common Agenda, n.d.). Lastly, wildlife has an intrinsic value to it. Wildlife is awe-inspiring and spiritually fulfilling. It is in the natural world that many form some of their fondest memories.  


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector 

The National Wildlife Federation is strongly connected to the philanthropic sector in the United States. First and foremost, the National Wildlife Federation is a registered 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit organization. This means that the organization is exempt from federal income tax. As a 501(c)3, donations given to the organization are tax-deductible; this means that donors can write off donations when filing their taxes every year. Not all charitable and/or nonprofit organizations are eligible for tax-deductible donations, so this is certainly a benefit for the National Wildlife Federation.  

Another tie between the philanthropic sector and the National Wildlife Federation is the funding of the organization. All organizations within the philanthropic sector have to be funded in some way and the National Wildlife Federation is no different. Revenue for the organization reached $73 million in 2015: $40 million in individual donations/bequests, $11 million in grants from foundations and corporations, $11 million from the organization’s publications, $9 million from Nature Education Materials, and $1 million from other income (Financial Overview, n.d.). Eighty-one percent of this revenue supported the organization’s programs and 19 percent covered administrative and fundraising expenses. Volunteering is yet another key aspect of the philanthropic sector and the National Wildlife Federation. Volunteer opportunities with the National Wildlife Federation include habitat volunteers, advocates for wildlife, special events volunteers, special situation volunteers, and corporate employee volunteers (Become a Volunteer, n.d.). Volunteering, like giving, is essential to the philanthropic sector. 

Finally, the National Wildlife Federation is connected to the philanthropic sector through the National Wildlife Federation Endowment. The mission of the National Wildlife Federation Endowment is “to provide through its investments for the financial stability of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in a manner that is consistent with the mission and values of the NWF” (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax). This endowment is representative of what most endowments do in the philanthropic sector: support the funding of a related nonprofit organization. Endowments are essential to the continuance of the philanthropic sector and, in this case, the funding of the National Wildlife Federation.  


Key Related Ideas 

  • National Park Service: As a part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service cares for and preserves more than 85 million acres of protected land. It was established in 1916 and currently employs more than 20,000 people.  
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is another bureau within the Department of the Interior. Its mission is to “work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”  
  • Environmentalism: Environmentalism seeks to preserve and restore the natural environment. It is an ideology that advocates environmental protection for the sustainability of Earth’s resources.   
  • Conservation: Conservation is the act of caring for Earth’s natural resources, such as air, water, plants, animals, soil, and minerals. These natural resources need to be carefully managed and protected so they are not recklessly wasted.  


Important People Related to the Topic 

  • John James Audubon (1785-1851): John James Audubon was a talented artist known for his drawings of birds. He is credited as having inspired the country to care about wildlife and the natural environment. The National Audubon Society was founded to honor him and his passion for birds and wildlife. 
  • J.N. “Ding” Darling (1876-1962): Ding Darling was a cartoonist and conservationist. He was the chief of the Bureau for Biological Survey and the thought leader behind the first North American Wildlife Conference. His efforts resulted in the establishment of the General Wildlife Federation, which later became the National Wildlife Federation. 
  • John Muir (1838-1914): John Muir was a distinguished nature writer. He was a strong advocate for protecting lands and the creation of national parks. In fact, he went on a camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 that is said to have compelled Roosevelt to establish the U.S. Forest Service. Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and was elected to be its first president.  
  • Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919): Theodore Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1901. He was the first president to truly emphasize conservation in American public policy. In 1904 alone, President Roosevelt established 51 wildlife refuges and three national parks. In short, President Roosevelt left a strong legacy on conservation in America. 
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): Henry David Thoreau was a highly gifted nature writer. His book Walden is regarded as a masterpiece. Thoreau is considered a pioneer of conservation for his passion, his advocacy, and his artistic endeavors. 


Related Nonprofit Organizations 

  • National Audubon Society ( The National Audubon Society is a 501(c)3 organization that “protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the ground conservation.” It has local chapters across the country as well as Audubon sanctuaries and centers for research and action.  
  • The Nature Conservancy ( The vision of The Nature Conservancy is “a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.” This organization works globally in 72 countries and in all 50 states with over one million members. The conservation strategies used by The Nature Conservancy are strongly rooted in science.  
  • Sierra Club ( The Sierra Club, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, “is the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. We amplify the power of our 3.5+ million members and supporters to defend everyone’s right to a healthy world.” The work of the Sierra Club has contributed to the protection of 439 parks and monuments, the passage of the Endangered Species and Clean Air Acts, and the transition of 274 coal plants to clean energy.  
  • The Jane Goodall Institute ( The Jane Goodall Institute is a conservation organization inspired by the work and vision of the legendary primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. Dr. Goodall’s “holistic approach” is reflected in the strategies used by the organization, which include: conservation science, advocacy, public awareness & environmental education, healthy habits, sustainable livelihoods, protecting chimpanzees, research, and more.  


Reflection Question: 

Why should we, as a country, care about the protection and restoration of native American wildlife? 



“About Us.” National Park Service. Accessed December 1, 2018.  

“About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

The National Wildlife Federation.

“Conservation.” National Geographic.  ​  


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.