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Sunday, 07 December 2014 22:00

Outdoor Discovery Center embraces entrepreneurial culture, empowering staff members

Written by  Ruth Terry
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Travis Williams, executive director, Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway. Travis Williams, executive director, Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

On his first day as executive director at the nonprofit Outdoor Discovery Center, Travis Williams didn’t have a desk, chair or working phone.

Now, 15 years later, he leads a $4.7 million organization with 26 staff members that serves more than 40,000 children and families per year.

“We’re definitely the poster child of a grassroots entity that we’ve grown from the ground up,” said Williams, who has been with the center since 2000.

The organization was established by outdoor enthusiasts Williams describes as “CEO types who like to hunt and fish” and who had a long-term vision for expanding community engagement with the great outdoors. Their commitment to the values of effective natural resources management, conservation and education has been a consistent thread through the center’s various incarnations, including its 2009 merger with Macatawa Greenway, which brought 1,200 acres along Ottawa County’s Macatawa River and a nature preserve under ODC’s protection.

While some nonprofit mergers can be contentious and appear more like hostile corporate takeovers than amicable combinations, in this case, the two groups were able to seamlessly blend their boards, assets and staff into a single entity.

Though Williams admits “it was a rather complicated thing,” in the end, he said the merger retained the best qualities of both organizations, including their financial support and human resources.

“One organization went away and another one was born,” Williams said of the merger. “There wasn’t room for both organizations to exist, and I don’t think they needed to. But we didn’t lose a single donor in the process. We didn’t lose any board members or staff.”

Effective stewardship of human resources has been a core value of the combined Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway since its inception. Recruiting the right people for key positions, differentiating between governance and leadership and fostering an innovative and entrepreneurial culture from the board down have led to sustainable growth for the nonprofit, which earned the organization honors in the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofit Awards in the Board Governance and Executive Leadership category.

Recruiting the right team for the mission of any nonprofit starts with finding the right executive director, said Bob Fenton, the current board chair at Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway.

“The number one role of any board is to choose the leader. If you choose the right leader, everything moves forward from there,” Fenton said. “The things we look at as a board are high-level strategic milestones that we want to help Travis achieve. It’s up to him and his team to execute.”

Once the merger was completed, the board “added a layer of staff around (Williams) to support him.”

Beyond that, the board encourages Williams to take charge of the hiring process. Williams does this strategically, identifying candidates who complement other staff members and who he can trust to deliver on specific outcomes — the same approach the board took when they hired him nearly 15 years ago.

The way Williams relates to his staff mimics his relationship with the board. Both board and executive director move “beyond delegation,” as Fenton described it, to encourage autonomy in operations and decision-making at every level of the organization.

“We have this concept of power (and) we try to push the power of every decision down to the person closest to the activity,” Fenton said. “We don’t get into micro-management.

“We treat him (Williams) in a certain way that says, ‘We trust you,’ and he does the same with his staff. It makes the business very fluid and very engaged. He’s now the leader of leaders.”

Williams said the autonomy that comes with working at the center actually seems to increase the sense of accountability among employees, himself included.

“They’ve got to trust me, and I’ve got to do my job,” Williams said flatly. “As an executive director, I am hired to lead the organization. If the board does not like how I’m doing my job, they should get rid of me.”

Williams, who holds an M.B.A. in addition to degrees in biology and education, is a firm believer in keeping governance and management separate — a strategy he credits for boosting the efficiency of the center’s systems.

“The board needs to lead at the high level,” Williams said. “They are not supposed to get mired into the day-to-day. It’s my job as the leader that they hire and pay to lead. Quite frankly, that’s how we get things done.”

The Outdoor Discovery Center’s Nature Preserve includes four miles of trails, ponds, six natural ecosystems, and a live bird of prey facility, and it serves as the location for the agency’s various on-site education initiatives and camps.

Currently in the works is the $12 million Project Clarity Initiative that addresses watershed quality; a 4,000-square-foot welcome center complete with wildlife exhibits; programs delivered at local schools; and longer-term partnerships with groups as varied as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Grand Rapids Boys and Girls Clubs and area school districts.

“We really pride ourselves here on collaboration,” Williams said. “(By) working with other groups and leveraging our strengths with those of other organizations’, we can really maximize our success, so we have a lot of programs that we do collaboratively.”

To date, one of the center’s successful partnerships has been with Hamilton Community Schools, according to friend and colleague Dave Tebo.

With Tebo, the superintendent of the Hamilton Community Schools, the ODCMG helped orchestrate the development of Little Hawks Discovery Preschool, a nature-based early education center on the center’s grounds.

“Right off the bat, he planted the idea of a nature-based preschool in my head,” Tebo said. “They were already running education programs for kids around the environment and nature and plants and animals, and we had already been using them for experiential learning.”

The two began investigating what it would take to put a preschool on the ODCMG site. Although there’s a challenging process to certify a preschool, especially one that’s near water and that involves children being outside in all kinds of weather, the partners committed to making Little Hawks a reality.

“From the beginning, it was a very natural partnership,” Tebo said. “He and I don’t start with ‘no’ unless it’s egregious. The thing Travis and I have in common is that we’re looking at five, 10 years down the road. We’re always trying to put things in place today for what the future (will) bring.”

Looking ahead to what’s next drives the work of ODCMG’s entrepreneurial board and executive director.

“We’re not afraid of change,” Williams said about the organization he leads. “We’ve made so many mistakes but … we grow from that stuff. Anybody who’s not changing is going backwards.

“I see people that root themselves in their history, and I root myself in the future. When you fall into the trap of not being innovative and not embracing change, at some point you’re going to get rolled over by the bus that’s coming down the road. I’d rather be driving the bus.”

Sidebar: Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway

  • Mission: To create opportunities to discover the wonder of the natural world through outdoor education and recreation, and to protect and connect habitats and greenways for the benefit of wildlife, people and the natural world.
  • Service area: West Michigan
  • Executive Director: Travis Williams (led the organization since 2000)
  • Number of employees: 22
  • Annual budget: $4.7 million
  • Best practices: An entrepreneurial mindset infuses every level of the organization, resulting in a culture of innovation, effective partnerships, lean processes and programs that scale. ODCMG encourages staff to take ownership of their positions and operate autonomously, which streamlines operations and prevents bureaucracy.
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