Unlike many public and for-profit companies, nonprofits sometimes need to pump the brakes in their quest for growth.
That’s the case for Grand Rapids-based Blandford Nature Center, the winner of this year’s MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofit Award in the midsize organization category.
After several years of growth in terms of budget, staff, capacity and land for Blandford, President and CEO Jason Meyer said it’s time for the organization now to slow down and focus on how the nature preserve and educational facility can best serve the community.
“Now that we’ve gone through really rapid, phenomenal growth, now it’s time to stabilize,” Meyer said.
Over the last year, Blandford Nature Center has completed a $10.6 million capital campaign that will position the organization for sustainability in the event of an economic downturn, Meyer said.
Additionally, working with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Blandford Nature Center closed on a deal to acquire the former Highlands Golf Course property on West Leonard Street adjacent to its existing location, news MiBiz first broke in January 2017. The nature center acquired the golf course for $3.5 million.
Since taking over the property, Blandford has largely just let nature take its course, Meyer said, adding that the organization will likely pursue a small campaign to raise funds for developing trails and pavilions at the site.
“But it will be a much smaller campaign than what we just finished so we’re not terribly worried about it,” Meyer said. “As we go through stability in the next three to five years, we’ll see a change in our organization related to being more reflective of our community.”
BECOMING A RESOURCE
With that focus on stabilization, Meyer said Blandford Nature Center needs to pivot from being known as a place where school children go on field trips to becoming a better community resource where urban dwellers can go to escape some elements of daily city life.
“In today’s community, nature is becoming so important to our daily lives and yet it’s a missed opportunity or something people forget about,” he said, noting that urban nature areas are of great importance for health.
That’s a sentiment supported by international scientific research. In 2014, Finnish researchers found that “short-term visits to urban nature areas have positive effects on stress relief” and that “urban woodland has a slightly stronger positive influence on stress relief.”
The report, titled “The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment,” was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
The research also noted that time spent in dense, urban centers can decrease people’s positive feelings.
“All the studies show that time in nature can reduce stress levels, it’s better for your health, it’s better for family connections,” Meyer said. “Grand Rapids is blessed in that there’s a focus on urban greenspace.”
A FOCUS ON PEOPLE
A year ago, Blandford Nature Center earned recognition as a finalist in the small nonprofit category in the Best-Managed Nonprofit Awards with an annual revenue of about $980,000. Since then, the organization has expanded its annual revenues to about $1.5 million, Meyer said.
When he took over the organization in 2014, Meyer had 12 total staff members, only four of whom were full-time. Now the nonprofit has grown to 28 staffers, including 12 full-time employees, he said.
“That’s a big piece of our growth,” Meyer said, referring to the growth in staff. “We’ve put a lot of intent into hiring the best that we can, paying people livable wages so they can be here … (and) trying to push the boundaries on best practices for nonprofits.
“A lot of folks say, ‘That stuff is expensive.’ Yeah, it sure is, but if you want to keep good people, you have to make the sacrifices to provide those sorts of things. Our biggest focus internally has definitely been on staff.”
Meyer’s focus on stabilization over continued growth has led him to know when and how to say no to other potential opportunities.
Since closing on the golf course property, Meyer said the organization has been presented with a handful of other possible deals to acquire nearby properties. While some of the financially viable opportunities would have offered the organization new uses, Blandford declined for now as it continues to focus internally, Meyer said.
“It’s got to make sense for where you are as an organization and where you’re going,” Meyer said of land deals. “I think sometimes people look at Blandford and wonder if we’re trying to take over the world. We’re not, but we’ve been lucky with a couple of instances.”
Blandford Nature Center
Mission: To engage and empower our community through enriching experiences in nature.
Service area: Greater Grand Rapids
Executive director: Jason Meyer
Number of employees: 28 staffers, including 12 full-time people
Annual revenue: $1.5 million
Management best practices:
- Continuous learning: Find professional development opportunities, volunteer at other organizations, serve on other boards and so on. Expanding your worldview can make a huge difference.
- Take time to disconnect: Taking vacations, working reasonable hours, and modeling that for other employees ensures that we all come to work sharp and refreshed. It shouldn’t be a badge of honor to work 60 hours a week.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for money: I know that money is a taboo subject. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know there are a million other things you’d rather do. But without money, you can’t fulfill your mission. And what I’ve learned about our community, it’s that they are willing to invest in good ideas, but we have to ask.
Board of directors: Bill Dangl, Dangl Financial Services LLC; Bill Faber, Grand Rapids Community College; Ryan Podvin, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital; Justin Remmelts, Remmelts Marketing; Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford Nature Center; Sara Armbruster, Steelcase Inc.; Andy Beachnau, Grand Valley State University; Linda Brunzell, Wolverine World Wide Inc.; Shavon Doyle-Holton, Inclusive Performance Strategies; Laurie Gardner, community volunteer; Pat Gelderloos, 20th Circuit Court; Bryan Harrison, Amway Corp.; Randy Hansen, Grand Rapids Public Schools; Susan (Susie) Meyers, Warner Norcross & Judd LLP; John P. Schneider, Clark Hill; Zachary Verhulst, TowerPinkster