Published in Nonprofits
Jason Meyer, president and CEO of Blandford Nature Center. Jason Meyer, president and CEO of Blandford Nature Center. Photo by Katy Batdorff

Blandford Nature Center expands capacity with capital campaign, ‘calculated risks’

BY Sunday, January 22, 2017 11:51am

By the end of Blandford Nature Center’s $10.3 million capital campaign, the nonprofit will have tripled its capacity over the last three years.

The campaign began in late 2014, around when current President and CEO Jason Meyer came onboard.

“There’s nothing like walking in the door and being told, ‘Go raise $10.3 million,’” Meyer said.

This is Blandford’s first-ever major capital campaign, Meyer said, which was one factor in its success. Up until 2003, the nature center was part of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. When the nature center was cut loose, it struggled until 2009, when the Wege Foundation assisted in funding an executive director position.

Now, Blandford is less than half-a-million dollars away from completing its first campaign, with $3.3 million of the funds going toward its new 11,000-square-foot Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center. The other $7 million will become an endowment to help with the long-term financial sustainability of Blandford, which was named a finalist in the  small organization category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. 

The campaign, named Growing Up Blandford, has both brought visibility to the organization and allowed the nonprofit to expand its staff and services, according to Meyer.

“The growth has been very rapid and we’re at the stage now where we’re thinking, ‘Let’s pump the brakes a little bit and make sure that what we’ve built, we’re able to do well,’” he said.

As part of this growth, Meyer said his team wants to reach deeper into the community, attracting people who wouldn’t typically take advantage of Blandford’s services. This began with several community focus groups in partnership with Inclusive Performance Strategies, a Grand Rapids consulting firm.

“What we’ve typically seen at Blandford are white, middle-class people,” Meyer said. “The flipside of that is when you watch the school students coming out here, 80 percent of them are minorities. So we have this disconnect between that and who’s really using our nature center outside of school groups. 

“There’s a huge gap there — we’re trying to fill that.”

Meyer said this new focus on diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t something the organization has ever really talked about in the past.

With all of this change, the nature center had to overcome a culture of “doing things the way we always have,” Meyer said. When he joined, it was part of a larger leadership transition, with the nature center hiring a new director of programs and services as well, for instance. The new staff began thinking of Blandford as being bigger than just its 143-acre plot of land, instead thinking entrepreneurially about how to expand its reach.

Part of that thinking is taking more calculated risks, Meyer said.

“The key there is calculated,” he said. “We think through what we’re doing, but we don’t let opportunities pass by because there might be a fear of the unknown. … It’s OK not to have all the answers today and still move forward with a strong plan for how it might play out.”

As the campaign wraps up and Blandford begins to think about its new strategy, Meyer said he wants to see more organizations working together, which will be a huge help in Blandford reaching out further into the community.

“We’re having discussions with other local nonprofits — how can we augment services? How can we partner on different projects?” Meyer said. “If you can find ways to support services across nonprofits, rather than compete, that’s really important. That’s going to be a big move for the next three to five years in Grand Rapids. You’ll see all the other organizations come together with a stronger, unified front.”  

Blandford Nature Center: 

    • Executive director: Jason Meyer
    • Mission: Educate, engage, and empower our community to become stewards of the natural world that sustains us.
    • Service Area: Grand Rapids
    • Number of employees: 16
    • Annual budget: $980,000
    • Best practices for management: Having a board of directors that understands their role in terms of fund development and governance and can support the organization from that angle. The other important piece is internal culture. It’s getting everybody on the bus and also in the right seats on the bus to move the organization forward. That takes a lot of work.
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