It’s hard for me to imagine trying to keep a nature center going without a friends group. Even with the solid financial support of a municipality, there are always needs that stretch the budget too thin. Equipment breaks. Technology becomes available that would make life so much easier. Supplies increase beyond the means of the yearly allowable increases. On and on and on. You know the drill.
Counter these financial pressures with the political advantages of an advocacy group--one made up of community leaders who can go to bat for you when needed--and you have a recipe for long-term success.
For all these reasons and more, I believe every nature center, community center and other park and recreation institution should develop a friends group, one which meets monthly with set agendas and has the ability to raise funds for both their benefactors and operating costs.
Choosing An Organizational Structure
There are two general ways to set up a friends group. The first and probably most common way is to establish a non-profit 501c3. The other is as an advisory group, which reports to another legal body, like a park commission. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The 501c3 way more easily allows for the legal receiving of grants. As a separate non-profit, however, it has to keep its own books and respond to state laws on private non-profits. The city or county or park district that is mainly responsible for running the center has no reason to listen to a non-profit because there is no organic connection between them. In fact, I know of cases where the non-profit friends group and the main supporting agency have gotten into some rather nasty battles.
The other way to establish a friends group is to do it within the agency itself and have the friends group report to a larger governing body. To overcome the problem of not being able to receive grants, one may look for a foundation willing to act as a fiscal agent.
The Path Less Chosen
I have worked with both systems and I prefer the second. Sometimes non-profits actually run centers. Their boards are often composed of people throughout the country and meet just a few times a year. The model I am talking about is more applicable to those places run by an agency like a city, county or park district. If one sets up by-laws in the proper way, the members of the board can so closely represent the community at large that speaking to your own board is like talking to a representative slice of the community.
In our own case, we have liaisons from the city council, the park commission, and the local school district. All applicants have to be approved by our community services commission. This way the community is actually advocating for the nature center that they help to pay for through their own taxes and are invested in it as community leaders. From a manager’s perspective, I truly trust that when I ask our board members their opinion on something, they are not a specialized advocacy group out of synch with those with more decision-making power; they are one and the same.
We now are fortunate to even have our mayor on the board, making the communication so much easier as I make a staff report once a month to the board and, in one shot, am able to reach the schools, the community and our city council.
The first thing to do when creating either type of board is to come up with a mission statement. A typical mission statement would say something like this: “This friends group exists to raise additional funding and acts in an advisory capacity to staff in order to create the most vital center possible.”
Other “quick-start” items include:
Set up bank accounts, one for operating funds and one as an endowment fund, on which only the interest is paid.
Establish different funding mechanisms for both funds. For example, your membership fees can be split and 50 percent can be put in one fund and 50 percent in the others. Fundraisers, memorials, and memberships are some of the ways to start creating a funding stream.
Submit budgets that reflect the types of things the board has agreed to sponsor, though that may change over time.
Here are some of the by-laws that I would recommend adopting when starting a friends group:
Make sure you have term limits and requirements for attendance.
Outline a process for getting on the board and list the positions needed.
Have a nominating process for officers spelled out clearly.
Set the number of board members that are appropriate for you but be flexible.
Solicit Board Members The Right Way
A word should be said about soliciting board members beyond the liaisons from various institutions. Make sure you have board members who represent your various audiences. For example, it might be that those who are attracted to serve their community are retired or have grown children, when your main audience is young families. Try to encourage at least some of your board members to be from the demographics of those you serve. They can provide better feedback, and if their families can attend your events, they can be volunteers. Don’t hesitate to ask those who are busy with other civic groups, for they can propose ideas, which can work for you too.
It’s also ideal, but not always easy, to recruit directly from the business community. Those with their own financial resources may just think it’s easier to write a check than find the time to help out with yet another fundraiser. It is important to have your own newsletter, membership program and logos for letterhead and Web sites. This is a great deal of work but worth it.
Once you have established a board, it’s important to fit the person to the task. Some are great at soliciting for prizes while others are effective at organizing silent auctions. It’s also important to offer awards for service and acknowledge contributions in an annual gathering at the end of the year.
There is yet another benefit to having a friends group. The people who share your devotion to the center often become your friends. You end up hearing and getting to know their families, and they get to know yours. After doing so many fundraisers together--soliciting grants and prizes, writing newsletters, defending policies--these dedicated volunteers are some of the best people you could ever call your friends.
Dr. Karen I. Shragg is Director of the Wood Lake Nature Center for the City of Richfield, Minn. For more information in setting up or maintaining a friends group, you can contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.