The Land Trust Leadership Program cultivates strong leaders and innovative change.
It was a beautiful, clear morning in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Ann Cole, the newly appointed executive director of the Mendocino Land Trust (CA), was sitting on some stone steps, notebook in hand, looking out over the lush green lawn. Her task was to devise action steps for the future of her organization.
Cole and 26 others had spent the past five days at the Land Trust Leadership Program, a Land Trust Alliance training initiative that brings together executive directors from all over the country to learn and think creatively about their work. “The program provides space and time for land trusts to consider, ‘Where are we, and where do we need to go?’ ” says Renee Kivikko, the Alliance’s director of education.
“I’ve attended lots of conservation programs and I count this as among the best designed programs I’ve had in my entire career,” says Vaughn Maatman, executive director of the accredited Land Conservancy of West Michigan. “The facilitators were able to harness the expertise and brainpower of everyone in the room.”
Who Attends the Program?
Nearly one in eight member land trusts of the Alliance have taken part in the Leadership Program to date. The goal is to bring roughly 28 new organizations on board each year. The program is open to staffed land trusts of all shapes and sizes and from every corner of the country. The unifying feature among them is that the leadership — i.e., the executive director and the board of directors — must have a demonstrated willingness to be creative and push the envelope. According to Erin Heskett, the Alliance’s national services director, “This program is for people who are engaged in big-picture thinking, interested in taking on challenges and risks and willing to embrace the community as their organizations grow.”
The Alliance looks at land trusts from a 360-degree perspective. For example, are they doing everything possible to protect land in perpetuity? One indication of such commitment is whether the land trust is enrolled in Terrafirma, the service that helps groups defend their conserved lands from legal challenge. Another indication is whether a group has earned — or is in the process of applying for — accreditation.
Although the cost of the two-year training is about $11,000 per land trust, each group only has to pay $1,000 a year because of generous underwriting from individuals and foundations.
How Does the Program Work?
The Leadership Program begins, in year one, with a five-day retreat for executive directors. Land trusts learn about strategic positioning and community outreach. They explore leadership strengths and ways to collaborate with their boards. A major topic of discussion is financial issues, such as how to effectively manage the organization’s financial resources, and fundraising strategies. The final day allows participants to create a personalized action plan that will help them advance their organizations and return to work with renewed energy, ideas and motivation for change.
In year two, executive directors return with a board member for two-and-a-half days of training. Topics include organizational capacity, how to communicate with the public, strategies for managing change and fundraising. On the last day the executive director and the board member compare notes and brainstorm. Together they make an action plan.
As part of the Leadership Program, the Alliance awards small grants to land trusts so that they can implement goals and priorities that were identified during training. Alumni have used grant monies to hire consultants, develop strategic plans, improve fundraising, spearhead community conservation efforts and upgrade financial systems.
Mission and Strategic Positioning
Many land trusts find the training sessions on mission and strategic positioning especially useful. Lori Ensinger, executive director of the accredited Westchester Land Trust (NY), learned about the power of good communication — in particular, speaking from the heart. “When you talk from your heart, people gravitate toward you. I think that telling my story, how I grew up, has made me a better leader as well as a better fundraiser. Because fundraising is really about tapping into your own passion for land — and then bringing that passion to other people.”
Ann Cole realized that the Mendocino Land Trust’s messaging, which relied on conveying conservation facts and figures, wasn’t resonating with the larger community nor was it cultivating a true sense of appreciation among those who already supported the land trust’s work. Cole and her team hired Judy Anderson, a consultant and one of the Leadership Program presenters, and together they revamped the land trust’s communications style. Now the group emphasizes the link between land conservation and issues of concern to the community. They also thank their members for doing their part to tackle important issues, such as drought and climate change. One person, upon reading the organization’s revamped newsletter, exclaimed, “Whatever you’re doing, it seems like you’re talking to me!”
Community conservation is an important theme at the Leadership Program. For Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the accredited Kestrel Land Trust (MA), this approach is about creating programs and places that are welcoming and meaningful to people from all walks of life. “After almost a decade of counting success only by acres and bucks, I was so inspired by what I heard in Kentucky that I came back wanting to enlarge our land trust’s vision and adopt community conservation as part of our mission.” Some on her board worried that doing more community programs might distract them from land conservation deals, so a special board retreat was organized with the help of Judy Anderson to explore how other organizations have expanded their community programs. As a result, the land trust decided to revamp its strategic plan and hire a dedicated Community Conservation Manager to move forward.
Leadership and Organizational Success
Learning about leadership and organizational capacity has prompted many people to make changes — big and small — in the way their land trusts operate. “As a group, we just weren’t involved in the land anymore,” says Marie Bostick, executive director at the accredited Land Trust of North Alabama. “But now we try to reinforce the big picture with staff. We go on hikes. It’s amazing what a difference this has made, particularly getting people out of their silos.”
Some land trusts, upon returning home from the Leadership Program, have held day-long retreats to cultivate deep-level strategic thinking between staff and board members. One group decided that its new board members weren’t properly engaged and that the board orientation process needed to be overhauled. Another group changed the way board meetings function, adopting a consent agenda whereby subcommittee reports are distributed in advance; this allows board meetings to focus more on strategy, governance issues and land deals.
Having board members and executive directors in the same room has been invaluable for many attendees. “My board member was hearing the same thing that I was hearing,” says the Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s Maatman. “I came home with a board member who was fired up to make changes. Importantly, he could help me frame issues for the rest of our board.”
“I learned that taking care of your board is like feeding little birds in a nest,” says Tom Kay, executive director of the accredited Alachua Conservation Trust (FL). “Before you can ask them to go out and advocate for the organization, you need to make them feel involved.” Kay now sends his board members a weekly email update, titled “Top Five Opportunities and Challenges from the Week,” which he believes has made everyone feel more invested in the organization.
Another topic of discussion was the importance of knowledge and self-care for executive directors. When Westchester Land Trust’s Ensinger attended the Leadership Program, she had recently transitioned from the board to serving as president. “The mission of the land trust was something I’d always passionately believed in, but the mechanics of running an organization were not as natural for me. I was operating in a vacuum of knowledge, so hearing from my peers and realizing that I’m not alone was very beneficial.”
Finance and Fundraising
When financial issues are discussed on day three of the Leadership Program, participants shift from thinking big picture (organizational and community issues) to smaller picture (the nuts and bolts of accounting). Kestral Land Trust’s DeBoer learned that her group’s accounting software was not going to take them the distance. “We had been using Quickbooks, but it just isn’t sufficient when you start doing multimillion dollar projects that require complex, sophisticated tracking. Plus, it wasn’t telling the full story of what we were doing and how we were spending money.”
Other groups had similar eye-opening moments. Mike Dalen, board chair at the Land Trust of North Alabama, realized that his group’s membership/donor management software was woefully out of date, not to mention that only one person in the organization knew how to use it. Now, a year later, they are in the process of implementing a cloud-based member/donor platform that will allow everyone to track leads and monitor work flows — from wherever they are.
The fundraising session happens on day four of the Leadership Program. Fundraising, of course, is a big issue for land trusts — and one that can cause friction between staff and board members. “Generally what I hear from staff is that they want their board members to be more involved,” says Andy Robinson, fundraising consultant and Leadership Program presenter. “I hear that they don’t have enough income diversity for their organization, and that many are lacking a major gifts program.”
The Land Trust of North Alabama is working through these challenges. It gets most of its income from events and does not have a major gifts program. Since returning home from the Leadership Program, Dalen and Bostick have launched a corporate membership campaign to bring Huntsville-area companies into the fold. They are also developing a list of potential donors in hopes of attracting some major gifts. Some of the board members are hesitant about the notion of fundraising. This has made Dalen and Bostick draw upon Robinson’s presentation, in which he discusses the importance of “redefining fundraising.”
“Fundraising is not just about asking for money, which, for many board members, is a terrifying thing,” says Robinson. “Fundraising is really a cycle. And there’s a place in this cycle for everyone—from drawing up lists of names to taking people out on the land to writing letters.” And last but not least, Robinson stresses that fundraising is about telling your story: the story of who you are in relation to the land.
Making Connections and Looking Ahead
One of the greatest aspects of the Leadership Program is the long-term connections that are made between attendees. One training cohort even created its own Facebook page: the Movers and the Shakers. “You leave the program feeling like you’ve made a strong group of friends,” says Maatman. “Now you can turn to them and say, ‘I know you’ve dealt with this at your land trust — help me think this through.’ ”
The Alliance is committed to nurturing this new and expanding network of leaders. At Rally, its annual conference, the Alliance holds a Leaders Summit, bringing together training program alumni and other senior leaders to explore ideas and look to the future. The Alliance also organized an Advanced Leadership Retreat in 2014 for 20 western executive directors. The goal is to keep the momentum going, keep the rich discussions alive. Most important, however, is change on the ground: ensuring that land trusts are growing in smart, inspired and community-centered ways.
For Ann Cole, the Leadership Program was transformative. “There was so much to be done when I arrived at my land trust. It seemed like a big pile of spaghetti.” On the last day of training in Kentucky, she sat on the stone steps, trying to process a huge volume of inspiring information from the week. She began to write her action plan. It included priorities for strategic positioning, revising the financial infrastructure, leadership self-care, fundraising and a new communication approach. Now, a year later, she reports: “I have done all those things.”