Watch the Interview Here
Leadership Challenges in Managing a Land Conservancy Nonprofit with David Perry
DAVID PERRY, Executive Director is a Blacksburg native, has been with the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy since 2006, when he was hired as the land trust’s project manager. He became assistant director in 2011 and executive director in 2012. Dave is chairman of the City of Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Advisory Board and a member of the Roanoke Kiwanis Club.
Dave has a master’s degree in park and resource management from Slippery Rock University and a bachelor’s degree in geography from James Madison University. Prior to coming to the land trust, he was employed with the Wicomico County Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism in Salisbury, MD and as a district executive with the East Carolina Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Kinston, NC. He, his wife and two sons live in southwest Roanoke.
Read the Interview
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, this is Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis for this edition of The Nonprofit Exchange. We’re here every week interviewing leaders about their challenges, their successes. What are some things that we’d wish we’d rethought, and how do we treat those situations as learning opportunities? I’m 73, and I’m still learning. I don’t know about you, Russ. You’re a lot younger than me, right?
Russell Dennis: Maybe not a whole lot, but I’m still learning things just the same. That’s good. I have another 15 years before everything shuts down, at least. And it’s good to be here. We are switching over. We’ve had about 60 degrees, but we are expecting some snow tonight here in Denver. That’s it. It just keeps moving. We’re in for a treat because we don’t get to talk to many people whose work is around protecting the environment and keeping clean spaces. We don’t get to see that. Strange phenomena like weather changing all the time is probably just in my imagination. It’s probably not real. But we get to talk with David here, who is there in Virginia. He is about an hour from you, Hugh?
Hugh: He’s an hour south of me. He’s in southwest Virginia. We’re in central western Virginia in Lynchburg. David and I have met a couple of times. We had a cancellation today, so I said, “Could you come on the show today and share your story?” David Perry is sitting in Roanoke, Virginia. You’re actually representing two land trust organizations. Tell people a little bit about yourself, and why is it you choose to do this for a profession?
David Perry: Sure, happy to do that. My name is David Perry. I am the executive director of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and our newly merged partner in Lynchburg, Virginia. We are in Roanoke, Virginia. Our new partner in Lynchburg is the Central Virginia Land Conservancy. 47 years old. Married, two sons, wonderful wife. Educational background. I have a degree in geography from James Madison University, and a Masters degree in Park and Resource Management from Slippery Rock University. I have been with the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy since 2006, just about 13 years now. I have been director of the organization since 2012. Half my tenure now has been as executive director.
The primary goal of a land conservancy is to protect important land, important for a variety of reasons, but to protect it from development permanently for the benefit of future generations. We protect water. We protect working farmlands. We protect scenic views, wildlife habitat, land adjoining areas of national and regional significance such as the Blue Ridge Parkway or Appalachian Trial. All sorts of land that is important for whatever reason from an environmental standpoint.
One of the things I love about nonprofit work is that it really gives me the opportunity to help others, to make a difference in the world. I have always been blessed throughout my career. I have worked in local government and other nonprofits. I have always been blessed to have a job where I am a do-gooder. I don’t have to worry about making shareholders an extra five cents on their dividend for the quarter or whatever the case may be. I also have tremendous freedom to help chart the direction of the organization because most nonprofits are smaller organizations. Even if you have 20 or 30 employees, you still have the opportunity to have a tremendous voice in the way things can work as opposed to working for a much larger organization. That’s probably why I do the work that I do.
As far as the outdoors angle, I was born as a kid. I grew up in southwest Virginia surrounded by tremendous beauty. It was a natural for me to fall into something environmental although I think honestly I would be very happy doing any kind of work that made the world a better place.
Hugh: You’re in Roanoke, Virginia. I think both Lynchburg and Roanoke were built around railroads. Lynchburg has the tobacco and river going through here. The Blue Ridge Conservancy and the Central Virginia Conservancy, are they contiguous?
David: Yes. We meet in the middle in Bedford County, Virginia, more or less. We’re neighbors.
Hugh: Part of that is mountainous, and part of it’s not.
David: Right. We go from the Blue Ridge Mountains and roll off the hill slope down into the Piedmont Virginia, down into the beginning of timber and tobacco country.
Hugh: It’s a beautiful place to live. We lived south of you for a while in Blacksburg. Two years, three months ago, we moved up to Lynchburg. It’s very similar to you, this whole terrain along here. What you do is preserve land. Talk about what is this that you do. People put land in the trust, but what’s that about, and how does that work?
David: The majority are private land owners. Typically, our demographic is older folks who own farmland anywhere from maybe 50 acres on up to 500 or 600 acres of farm and mountain and timber land. They don’t want to see it become anything other than what it is. They don’t want to see it become overdeveloped and turned into a housing subdivision or strip mall or some kind of retail or commercial or industrial establishment. The legal term for what we use is a conservation easement. That’s an agreement between us and the owner of the property that spells out an upper cap on development of the property for the future.
We work with the land owner to talk with them about how they’d like to see the land protected. That comes in a variety of ways. We limit the number of times the land can be subdivided, so we keep large tracts of land together. We limit how many dwellings can be built, typically where those dwellings, like garages or farm buildings or farms might be able to go to protect the viewshed of the public from roads or rivers. It limits what kinds of timbering in many cases can take. Some people don’t want to touch a tree, which is fine. Some people want to maintain the property as active timber land, and that’s great, too. But we do stipulate that they use best management practices on the property. Those are just ways of doing things the right way so we don’t end up polluting the waterways as the result of timbering practices that might be damaging. Those are the types of restrictions that go on the land. You can’t accumulate junk on the property. You can’t mine or have an open gravel pit on the property. You have to leave it as land that’s available for agricultural use or forestall use or wildlife habitats, some kind of rural or agricultural use in the future.
Once the land owner donates this land to the conservancy, and it’s a donation, it’s our job forever to enforce that agreement. 100 years from now, when some other family owns that property, hopefully there will still be a Blue Ridge or Central Virginia Land Conservancy that is enforcing these agreements and helping to ensure that the wishes of the land owner from way back in 2019 are still being carried out in 2119 and beyond.
Hugh: When you spoke last week, you were talking about the difference in the size of the tracts that are donated. There is a nice size where we live. Out there where Russell lives in the West, there is a big difference. When you hit metropolitan areas, there is another difference. Talk about the different size of land tracts that are donated.
David: It’s all relative, depending on where you live in the United States. In Virginia, in the southeast, farm tracts these days are probably a couple hundred acres. You might have some commercial operations that are a few thousand acres. What people have is typically a few hundred acres of land. When you get into the northeast, which is where the land trust movement really began, every township might have its own land trust. We cover 16 counties in our area. Every small township of 5,000 people might have its own land trust that looks after the community green in that town. Then when you get into an even smaller scale, I know for example there is a group in the city of Baltimore that protects land for community gardens. To them, an eighth of an acre in the middle of a big city is just a vast property. You take that in the other direction. You head out west, and everything gets bigger. It’s not just bigger in Texas; it’s bigger in Colorado, too. They deal with thousands of acres and tens of thousands of acres. We’ll hear about these big 10-20,000 acre deals. It blows our mind back east. Out west, they’re like, Eh, that’s what we do. The states are bigger out west. The landscapes are bigger out west. There are fewer people out west. It all scales up.
Hugh: That small tract of land in Baltimore might be worth a lot more money than a bigger tract somewhere else.
David: That’s true. The money, the smaller it gets in the big city, you have a very small, very expensive tract of land.
Hugh: From where you sit as executive director, you’ve just undergone a merger with two land trust organizations.
David: Correct. The Central Virginia Land Conservancy was founded about seven years ago after we were. We were founded in the mid’90s, and they came along in the early 2000s. We’ve always worked together cooperatively. They really wanted to take the next step in terms of the pace and the scale of their land conservation. We have been saving a tremendous amount of land in recent years, thanks to our fantastic board and our great staff. The Central Virginia Land Conservancy was very interested in doing the same thing, but didn’t quite know what to do to take that next step. To be honest, it’s a daunting task. I don’t care what kind of nonprofit work you do, but if you’re talking about scaling up your work from what you’re currently doing to making that leap of faith, and they were an all-volunteer organization, they were looking at what can we do in our spare time in our evenings and weekends. It was pretty daunting.
I talked about doing a mentorship type relationship, not that I know everything and do everything perfectly well, but I was willing to share what I know and help them to do things, scale up their fundraising, bring some more heavy hitters on their board because you always need to have that give-get or get off board. Maybe that’s not the best phrase. You need people who get things done and acquire the resources you need to be successful. We started joking around as boyfriends and girlfriends do about getting married. Eventually, we realized that was maybe the best thing to do. We should just merge the organizations.
I think a couple of things allowed that merger to take place. one is that the hang was good. When we hung out together as board members and staff members, we all got along. We were all on the same wavelength, and we all had the same goals. That’s a slang term. The hang was good. That really greased the skids.
I think other things that made the merger make sense was that Roanoke and Lynchburg aren’t terribly far apart. Even though they are separate communities with separate central places and separate airports and shopping centers and hospitals, but they are close enough together that we could realize autonomies of scale without having to duplicate everything for two cities that are about 55 miles apart, maybe an hour apart, if you account for stop lights. We have a lot of organizational infrastructure here at the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy in terms of our computer programs that we have to manage things like donors and handling donations and processing donations and managing our portfolio of conserved lands, having vehicles and an office and things like that.
What the Central Virginia Land Conservancy brought to the table was a fantastic group of volunteers that really love land conservation. They were willing to work hard and help. We were able to combine people who really wanted to get out there and conserve land while it’s still there with the organizational infrastructure that we can bring to the table. It just made a lot of sense. It allows us to be able to work in partnership with the state, where we were being asked to work as the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and would refer folks to the Central Virginia Land Conservancy, but they weren’t quite ready to take the step and hold these permanent conservation agreements. It allowed us to accomplish some goals that we wanted to do as well, which is to better serve the central Virginia region and not let conservation opportunities pass us by. Once they’re gone, they might be gone forever.
Hugh: What’s the value in taking two organizations like this and turning them into one? It seems like you’re combining the best of both, but that doesn’t always happen, does it?
David: I think we’re combining the best of both. So far, that’s been the case. It’s only been a few months, but I think the positive energy has really carried over. Again, the value. And I don’t think who you are or how big you are. Nonprofits always need to be thinking about how to do this better and more efficiently. When you’re in a rural part of the state with a few urban hubs that are centers of money and activity, it really makes sense to band together. Only being an hour or so apart, it just made too much sense not to do it. This wasn’t an organization. Again, when I know you get out to other parts of the country, you will have six or seven-hour drives. In Colorado, with Russell, it might take you a while to get from Point A to Point B. Here in Virginia, we are fairly densely packed, even though it’s a rural area. We can have a face-to-face meeting with just a short drive while still maintaining the unique identities of the different communities. We are continuing to brand separately. We still have the Blue Ridge brand and the Central Virginia brand because those are important to those places. We like to maintain those separate identities while behind the scenes from a land trust governance standpoint, we are realizing a lot of efficiencies.
Hugh: That doesn’t always happen when organizations merge. Having had that existing relationship and having a non-threatening conversation about that, the benefits of merging.
In our journeys, we’ve done leadership training sessions we call a symposium in 26 different cities around the country. We have done one in Roanoke and one in Lynchburg as a matter of fact. I don’t think I knew you then. People bring the issues they want to address and the top issue for most geographic areas is leader burnout. There is too much going on. The leader has too much to do. The burnout is pretty severe. The second one is board engagement. Related to those problems, the third one is insufficient funding. Let’s talk about from your seat. Do you have lots of volunteers that work under each of these organizations?
David: We do. We have a unique situation. Our board is still at the point where they are somewhere between a working board and a policy and governance board. They certainly set policy, but they are also great about helping out. We have some board members who love to get out in the field with us with our conservation staff that actually goes onto the properties and meets with land owners to generate new conservation properties or maintains our existing properties. Some people really enjoy that aspect of the job. Our board is very engaged.
I think leader and staff burnout is a very real thing. We were dealing with that even before the merger. One thing we have been very cautious to do is attach some funding streams to this merger. We’re also starting up a start-up operation to our self, which will engage four new counties where there is not a private land trust like we are, which will be part of our organization but branded separately as the Southern Virginia Land Conservancy. We just hired our first employee down there. Both of these operations, the merger for Lynchburg, we received a grant from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy because a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs along that Central Virginia Area. That will help us pull ourselves up from our bootstraps for our first year or two as far as having staff. Same thing with our initiative to our staff with the Southern Virginia Land Conservancy. We have a grant there from the Virginia Environment Endowment, which has enabled us to hire our first employee and work out of that area. We didn’t want to take this on and continue to overburden our staff. We wanted to expand into these areas and hire staff to be able to help carry some of that load.
We talk about drive times. It is maybe only an hour from Roanoke to Lynchburg. Of course, we go much further out into the country than just Roanoke or Lynchburg. Sometimes you can spend just two hours in the car even before you arrive on a rural property that you might want to conserve or talk to the land owner. Therefore, you can spend half your day going there and back. By hiring employees to work in various locations, because our employees won’t work out of the Roanoke office, they will be working remotely, it will enable them to cut that drive time out of the equation so they can, if there is a land owner in the Lynchburg area, it might be 45 minutes away from them as opposed to two hours for us, or to our south, the same situation. They can cut the whole trip from Roanoke just to get to Southern Virginia, and from there to go where they need to go.
What was the additional piece? We talked about staff burnout.
Hugh: Board empowerment. You made an interesting observation there. Governance and policy and active board. How would you describe an active board?
David: How would I describe an active board? We have been very fortunate to have people who have come on our board, and for the most part, they don’t do it to fulfill some kind of professional obligation because their accounting firm wants them to be involved in the community, or for whatever reason. They come on board because they really value our mission. They catch the bug from the other board members, their energy and their excitement. We have been able to keep that rolling as the board turns over over the years.
If you want to have an engaged board, you have to give them something to do. You have to keep them involved in the decision-making process. Staff can generate a lot of ideas. This merger, for example, was a staff idea. The expansion into Southern Virginia was a staff idea. You take that and go to maybe some of your confidantes on the board or some of the board members who have been there for a while and have board history and say, “What do you think about this? I see a need or an area in which we can contribute more. I see a way in which we can expand the mission of the organization. Here are some ways I think we can fund it. Here are some ways I think we can make it work.” You might do that over a beer, a cup of coffee, or lunch. If you receive a positive reception from the folks whose opinions you trust and who know the organization well, then you can say, “Well, is there a committee that we need to take this to? Do we need to take this to the executive committee and say, ‘Hey, we have this crazy idea. What do you think of it?’”
Involving your board from day one and not trying to ram things down their throat, not trying to curse or demand that anyone do anything. Once everyone has an opportunity for input and involvement, they may have a better way to accomplish the same goal that you have. So you have to be very open to the concept or possibility that there is more than one right way to do things. That’s really how we have tried to do it is to start small with those conversations over a cup of coffee. If the ideas gain traction, we take it from there. We have had other ideas where we explored them and said, “This is not going to work,” and have set them aside for the time being.
Hugh: That’s good. Russell has been very polite in the background. He has some good questions that he is formulating. I am going to plug in my power while he is interviewing you. He has some good questions. Russell, do you want to have a go at it?
Russell: Certainly. Thank you very much, David, for joining us here. You have a great portfolio. I was just looking at the map here of the properties you have. I was curious because you have a good footprint how many acres right now that your group has under management.
David: Sure. About 22,000 acres under management. Not many people know what an acre is. It’s about a football field. I don’t know how many people can visualize 22,000 football fields. It’s the size of a couple small cities put together. It’s a lot of land. It’s spread out. The biggest chunk of that is a beautiful recreational area we have here outside of Roanoke called Carvins Cove Natural Reserve. That’s about 11,000 acres. We have two agreements there with the city of Roanoke to protect 11,000 acres. Our other remainder of our 75 agreements we have to protect the 11,000 other acres are much smaller pieces of property spread out all over the place.
Russell: A merger is almost an unused growth strategy for nonprofits. It’s made so much sense for you. Was this something that you had on the radar when you were putting things together? Or did it just occur to you out of that first synergy? You know what? We could probably make this work. A merger as a strategy is something that can help us preserve more resources.
David: I really believe in doing land conservation the right way although Lord knows we make mistakes and try to learn from them. But by the right way, I don’t mean the mistake-free way. I mean taking the right approach. That’s really by doing it at the grassroots level and involving the communities in which you work.
One thing we didn’t want to do is ride in from the big city of Roanoke, our tallest building is about 20 stories, and tell the people in the rural areas surrounding us how they needed to do things, and then ride back to the city before it got dark and go back to our houses in town. When we were asked to come into the Lynchburg area and work with the Central Virginia Land Conservancy and maybe conserve some properties because they weren’t quite ready to take that step yet, or to come into southside Virginia where there was no private nonprofit organization doing land conservation, I really wanted to start it from the ground level and involve people from the community that had a passion for the environment, a passion for the outdoors, and get their input.
The past few months, I spent a lot of time riding the circuit. As Hugh mentioned, I came and spoke to the morning rotary club in Lynchburg. That’s been one of many meetings I’ve had with community leaders. The chamber of commerce folks and the business community and people who are involved in the outdoors and the environment with other organizations, getting to know who’s who and who I should be talking to and looking at what names keep popping up over and over again. When that happens, you know that person is someone you need to probably go see.
That is what I think drove the merger and the start-up process as well. We wanted to go about it a certain way. It did not involve anything top-down. We wanted it to come from the bottom up.
Russell: You were talking about time spent in the car. I have been in the Denver area for about 12 years. You can spend a lot of time in the car without covering a great deal of distance here. I lived down east for quite a while. I was up in northern Maine. Even when you think about a state that is as rural as Maine, we were having discussions 20 years ago about keeping sprawl from running amok and going out of control.
In Virginia, which is large and beautiful, I have some friends who live there, like a lot of other places, especially in parts there, there is a great deal of development and commercialization and those types of things going on. How has that increased the pressure on people down there to maintain some green spaces? That’s probably created some extra challenges that would not there when you started.
David: That’s very true. Where we have seen the biggest growth in Virginia, certainly in the Washington D.C. suburbs, northern Virginia, and the upper Virginia Piedmont. It’s one of the ironies of the environmental movement that sometimes you make the most progress from an environmental standpoint where you have the greatest environmental tragedies taking place. It really opens people’s eyes. When everything looks pretty and green and healthy, everyone assumes it will always remain that way. But when people begin to drive by housing developments they used to remember as a farm when they were a kid or take horseback riding lessons at, and now it’s nothing but a WallyWorld or whatever the case may be, people take notice. In some of the most rapidly developing counties in Virginia, we also have some of the greatest amounts of conservation work being done. People do see what they are losing, and they want to hang onto it.
It’s really taking place on everything from the highly populated D.C. suburbs down to the small towns because everybody wants to get that big suburban house with the SUV parked outside and the big sprawling yard and to attend the suburban schools. That’s all great until we have another recession, and the price of gas is $5 a gallon and people realize that’s maybe not the best idea. Almost any community of any size in Virginia, with the exception of a few places, and it’s probably true around the country, too, we are all feeling this pressure to protect the wild places and the important rural places in America. While we still can, and while it’s still there. That’s my motto.
Russell: Talk a little bit about some of the land owners. You probably have a unique blend of land owners. Who are the folks who are going to be more likely to be interested in taking some of their land and conserving it?
David: Typically, our typical land-owning family we work with is probably older. Might be a married couple who have lived on the land for quite some time. They are reaching an age in their life where they are thinking about their will. What am I going to leave my children? They have questions about whether or not their kids will want to come back and live on the farm. The kids have probably all gone off to the big city and are working in a major metro area somewhere. They have questions about what is going to happen to the land they love. In most cases, it’s been in the family for a long time. In some cases, this family has owned the land for hundreds of years in the same family. In other cases, they have moved down from the northeast or up from Charlotte, retired in Virginia and bought their gentleman/gentlewoman’s farm and have a few cows up front. They have fallen in love with the place in a 20-year period of time, and they don’t want it to be taken out of that rural setting and turned into something else either.
An older couple who is looking to ensure they can rest easy at night knowing that when they pass, the kids won’t carve up the property for the money and split town. We have had people tell us that. A little bit cynical, but there is always a grain of truth in there that they don’t trust their kids when they’re gone. They want to make sure the farm stays the farm and the family can always come back to it as a place to enjoy.
Russell: A lot of elder people are very conscious and aware of what’s taking place with the environment around them. I’d imagine that you’re starting to see younger land owners and other folks who are certainly in your volunteer base getting messaging out. What would be the best way? There are conservancies everywhere and different land organizations. I don’t know that many people know a lot about conservancies and this idea of collaborating with people to preserve the character of the community they live in.
Talk a little bit about how you educate people who may not even know that this is available, and how you go about making the process of working with them seamless so that they don’t feel like they are jumping through a lot of hoops that will be difficult to navigate.
David: I think that’s a nationwide problem is the awareness of the land conservation movement. Land solves so many problems: mental health issues, sources for local food, climate change. Trees suck up carbon like there’s no tomorrow. They are a wonderful solution to help mitigate climate change. The Land Trust Alliance, which is our national professional organization or advocacy organization, estimates that most Americans live within just a few miles of conserved land and don’t know it. We as a national movement are trying to make ourselves more relevant and well-known. I think that’s an excellent point you bring up.
We have an approach we call community conservation. The whole goal is not rocket science; you involve the community in the decision-making process. You find out what’s important to the community. You have events out on conserved properties. We do a lot of hikes and programs where we get people out onto conserved land, and they have a great time in the woods or hike to the top of a mountain. It’s one they can’t get to usually because it’s private property. It’s not on the Appalachian Trail somewhere. We say this is your one chance this year to bag this peak because it’s a private land owner, and we have permission on Saturday only to hike it.
As a nonprofit, you can never stop promoting yourself. The airwaves, the Internet space, is so congested. People’s lives are full of so many things that you have to constantly promote yourself and hope that through tenacity you rise to the top of people’s awareness levels.
You made another point as well. Land owners may have some idea of what conserving their land means, but they’re not familiar with it. It’s probably something they will only do one time in their entire lives. We might do 10 or 20 of these agreements a year, and they will do one in the 80 years they are walking this planet. It’s something that we struggle with to make it a seamless process. There are a lot of moving parts. We struggle to implement the best procedures to track those moving parts. There are attorneys and real estate appraisers and accountants and surveyors involved. All kinds of different folks. Government is sometimes involved with government conservation programs. Making it a seamless process is difficult.
I don’t think any nonprofit is as successful as they could be if they are not bringing in partners or experts to be a part of the process. We don’t know everything. If someone has to fence cattle out of their stream so that the cows don’t stand around and do what cows like to do in the water, which pollutes the water, we will bring in our partners from the U.S government’s National Resource Conservation Service or the Stolen Water Conservation Districts here in Virginia. Other states have similar organizations at the state level. They know all about fencing and digging wells and putting in water for the cattle, keeping them out of the stream. Just as an example. Again, building that partnership so that we don’t have those hiccups along the way. We try to smooth those out for the land owners.
There are also organizations in Virginia and private individuals that their job is to assist the land owner with the process from the beginning to the end. We are really the end recipient of the product, the conserved property. We don’t own it, but we have that perpetual forever obligation to ensure the property remains protected. We are at the end of the line. A lot of stuff has to happen where that land owner has to work with other people besides us where they get to the point of signing on the dotted line with the Blue Ridge or Central Virginia Land Conservancy.
Hugh: I’m just amazed at how much I don’t know about this topic as we’re talking. Russ always asks really interesting questions, but introspective questions that help me think about structure. Let me do a follow-up of where we were before. The second and third part of the struggles for all nonprofits that I see in one form or another is having this continuous funding stream. I wanted to ask you. You have two boards and a combined board. You have a lot of board things going on. You talked about an executive committee. There are a lot of board models going on. Some have executive teams, and some don’t. Some have advisory boards, advisors, or advisory councils. There are a lot of different entities. Some have volunteers. Some have servant leaders. There are a lot of configurations of how we put people to work.
In your journey, what’s ahead for you in the envelope of board capacity building? How would you see raising the capacity of the two boards? Do you ever see a full board merger? What are the challenges in helping the board get on board with what needs to be done and equip themselves?
David: We are working through our governance model right now. Where I think I see ourselves heading is we will have one legal board for the entity. We will have standing committees for our three operating bodies: the Blue Ridge, the Central Virginia, and the Southern Virginia. I think certain powers will remain at the upper board level, and certain authorities will be divested to the standing committees, which will have charge of those three different parts of the operation.
Board development is just like fundraising. You have to be continually thinking about who is coming on the board next, who is going off the board next. If I meet someone, always have your spider sense up of would they make a good board member. It’s a continual year-round process and goes on in a much longer part of the year than a brief window of time when you have a nominating committee meet. I think it’s our challenge in the areas that we are moving into to get to know the committees and start to identify those folks who would make good board members.
The key to keeping them engaged is just involving them in the decision-making process and giving them something to do, putting them on a committee, asking them if they will take on certain roles. It’s easy as human beings to say, “Well, yeah, I’m on that board, but they don’t ask me to do much. We don’t do a whole lot.” Then you fade into the background and start missing meetings. When you have got someone who has a job for you, and people are asking your opinion or asking you to walk a property with them on a nice spring day, it boosts your level of obligation and commitment to that board.
Hugh: It’s a leadership mindset that people joined it because they have a passion for it. Our job is to put them to work and maybe get out of the way.
David: Exactly. That is one of the best things you can do as a leader is to know when to get out of the way.
Hugh: And when to step in. But also have some accountability in place. I’m amazed at how many leaders don’t want to ask anybody, “Oh, they’re volunteers. We don’t want to bother them. They’re busy.” I think that’s a false narrative that we tell ourselves.
David: They’ll tell you when they’re too busy. They will say, “I can’t. I have too much going on.” I think you need to be sensitive to how much you are burdening someone. I have found that if folks are too busy, they will tell you no. They appreciate an honest ask. It’s an ask; it’s not a “Meet me here at this time.” It’s, “Bob or Sue, I appreciate your time. I love what you’re doing with this. Would you be able to help me out on this day?” Always come to it from a position of appreciation for what they are doing and recognizing they are giving up their time. Then being cognizant if they say, “No,” or if they start to indicate they are burned out, you need to look at someone else.
Hugh: We tend to ask the people who will do it to do everything, and then ignore the others. We get a few people who burn out. That doesn’t work. You said there is a nominating process. Is there a nominating committee in your organization?
David: Yes, there is. They tend to meet in the spring. Before the new budget year, you have to look at bringing on new board members, replacing old ones, and nailing down the budget for the coming year. That is a springtime formal process for us, but it goes on year-round. We will talk with people about coming on our board years in advance. We have shortened our board terms as well because people don’t want that obligation to feel like they will get on a board and never get off. We used to have three consecutive three-year terms as the most you can do, and it’s gone to three consecutive two-year terms. We went to a president and president-elect model so no one ever feels like they have to sit in the chief chair of responsibility for more than one year. That has seemed to work out pretty well for us as well.
Hugh: That’s president, president elect, and past president.
David: We have not done a past president. We could. We just have chosen not to. That certainly works in lots of organizations, yeah.
Hugh: It does. Speak for a minutes. I’m going to let Russ have another question before we run out of time. You’re present with people. One of the uphill battles is keeping an organization funded. You have liabilities with all the properties. You have operational costs. There is a budget you have to feed. People don’t just give you land and are happy thereafter. What is your model for- Do you have a development person? Is that part of your job? How do you present the need? What percent comes from individual donors? Do you have grants or federal subsidies? What else do you get?
David: We have a variety of revenue streams. Most of our revenue comes from individual donations, business sponsorships. We have one fundraiser dinner a year. We used to rely on a very large grant from an out-of-state foundation that a board member long ago had brought in from some connection he had from a previous life. We lost that grant during the great recession. 25% of our budget went away overnight. That was about 2007 or 2008.
One of the things we tried to do was diversify, diversify, diversify. We don’t rely on any one revenue stream. If you’re a nonprofit, you have to continually fundraise and ask. We do all kinds of different giving programs from purchasing mailing lists to large donor solicitations to gifts and wills. We have had a lot of success recently with donated vehicles. NPR has done advertising on the radio for years.
I think from a standpoint of relaying that to the board, you as a staff member explain what the need is, how much you need, and get that board buy-in. Starting with those small conversations. If we could raise $50,000, we could do this. It starts off as a daunting goal. Before you know it, you may not raise $50,000 the first year, but by the time you raise $10,000, $35,000, and then $45,000, that $50,000 seems like a pretty sure thing every year. You build up to it.
Hugh: Russ, do you have a short question we can handle briefly here?
Russell: I do. I was thinking in terms of types of land out there. You’re having conversations with people all around the country. Is there a type of property that we’re in danger of losing? Are there easements that we really need more of right now?
David: I would say every community is unique. It’s hard to answer that from a nationwide perspective. I think I would throw out two broad types of property. Any kind of land we can save that helps to mitigate climate change is probably going to be an important property to save. There are lots of factors that can make a land good for mitigating climate change. The Nature Conservancy has some great resources online to help identify those properties.
The other thing is we are in the midst of a human-caused extinction of species. Any kind of properties that help to maintain, conserve animal habitat, especially for species who are on the brink, no matter where you are in America, that would be an important piece of land to protect as well.
If I were to throw out a third, I would say land that people can enjoy. People are only going to protect what they can enjoy and care about. If they have a love in their heart for a certain property, and you are able to help foster that, then that is something you ought to work on as well.
Hugh: Going back to places I used to live, looking for the vacant land that used to be there when I grew up, it’s now a bunch of apartments. Disappointed they paved over the creek. That is inspiring. I do want to encourage people. We have a wide variety of listeners, most of whom are in a seat like you’re in and are facing all the challenges you talk about. You’re very eloquent about the value of what you do.
I think the lesson I’d encourage other nonprofit leaders is to talk about the value that you bring to the world, to the community. If you are connected with a corporation, we lost some corporate support for nonprofits during the recession that hasn’t come back, but corporations are profitable. Those who are interested in the triple bottom line, it’s people, the planet, and the profit. The planet piece would be a land conservancy like the one we are talking to. The people part is what SynerVision Leadership Foundation does. It helps the people part of all the nonprofits. You really couldn’t do this without the people around you, all the people you talk about. It takes people focused on an end result that brings people together. I really appreciate the part you said that you want to include the board in decision-making.
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David, what is a thought you would like to leave other nonprofit leaders? You have been in some transitions and are upgrading your systems and reviewing policies. What tips would you have for other nonprofit leaders regardless of what they are doing? What advice would you like to leave with people?
David: I think at the present moment, don’t let fear rule your decision-making process. A lot of reasons I would say that, but I think that’s probably true in life, not just in the nonprofit world. if you are doing something or not doing something because you’re afraid of what might happen, then you really ought to take a second look and determine your real motivations there. Do you really think it’s a good idea or a bad idea, or are you afraid of the consequences? Are you afraid of failure? Failure is the great tool. Failure is also known as experience. You’re not an experienced leader unless you have completely fallen off the horse, gotten gravel in your knees, bumped your head, and learned from the mistake and gotten back on.
Russell: That’s it. Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. Thank you so much, David. I really appreciate you spending some time with us. For folks who want more information, visit the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy website. They have a Saving Land newsletter that would be good for you to read. Anywhere in the country that you are, you can get that newsletter. You can call David. There is a place for you to call him. The phone number and email to reach out are there. He can probably put you in touch with people in your area who are doing this work.