Guest Post: Lansing Nature Center Provides Model for Success in Lean Times

A few weeks ago we had the chance to meet up with Jason Meyer, Executive Director, Fenner Conservancy in Lansing, Michigan. We asked Jason to share how they transitioned the nature center from a city-operated facility to a non-profit managed operation.  

The Fenner Nature Center offers a variety of programs and events including a Maple Syrup Festival.

Since 1959, Fenner Nature Center has been an important stitch in the fabric of the greater Lansing area. Now home to a visitor center, the Maple Syrup and Apple Butter Festivals, and a wide array of school and public programming, Fenner’s 134 acres or urban green space provides a “getaway” just down the road. Completely funded and managed by the City of Lansing’s Parks and Recreation Department, the nature center weathered most of the swings in the city’s budget.

In 1980, the Friends of Fenner Nature Center was formed as a 501(c)3 nonprofit to support the nature center – these dedicated volunteers managed special events, volunteered in the gardens, helped renovate the building, and raised some funds to help support the programming when the city budget was lean. For over 30 years, the Friends of Fenner played a vital role in Fenner Nature Center’s success.

As we all know, 2008 was a tough year economically. Decreasing revenues from city property taxes as homes lost values, coupled with the retirement of the city Naturalist and the projected costs of hiring a new one prompted the city of Lansing to evaluate several alternatives for Fenner, including closing the doors of the nature center and making the park a passive-use property. The Friends of Fenner Nature Center, along with many other supporters across the city did not see this as a viable alternative. In fact, the Friends of Fenner, in partnership with the city, took a leap – the two entities entered into a license agreement, whereby the Friends took over management of all programs, special events, and volunteer management at Fenner. In turn, the city continued to make repairs as necessary, pay for utilities, and provide some funding for part-time staff.

One of many trails at the nature center.

With two signatures, the realities of the Friends as a nonprofit changes instantly. In 2008, the annual operating budget was $15,000. With the new duties required as managers of the facility, the annual operating budget increased to over $175,000 – staff needed to be hired, supplies needed to be purchased, and insurance policies needed to be put in place. The operation of a nature center is a tremendous undertaking, one that the Friends of Fenner did not shy away from.

In 2010, the Friends hired me as the first executive director of the organization. We developed a strategic plan, gave our programs and facility a giant facelift, rebuilt our Board of Directors, and started to reintroduce Fenner Nature Center to Lansing’s residents and visitors. Now much more than a “friends” group in the traditional sense, we have rebranded our organization as “Fenner Conservancy,” complete with a new name, a new logo, and a new and fresh feel in our programs and events. Our new mission statement concisely captures the lifeblood of all we do: “Fenner Conservancy connects people to nature in the heart of Lansing through conservation, education, and stewardship.”

At the end of 2011, about three years after Fenner Conservancy took the reins, I’m happy to share that we have increased our visitor numbers, reached more people through programming, and contribute heartily through volunteerism to the care and upkeep of our treasured park at levels that far surpass those in the past. Over 20,000 visitors entered our facility last year, we launched innovative new programs like the Fenner Field School, and contributed over $90,000 worth of volunteer time.

We look forward to a successful year this year, and through a grant, the Consumers Energy Foundation has ensured that the Fenner Field School will once again give youth the opportunity to spend two weeks in the woods, learning about careers, solving environmental problems, and leading conservation projects. Our partnership with the city is being used as a model for other similar arrangements around the country, and our community partners see the value in working together toward a common goal.

I’d like to invite you to come and enjoy Fenner for yourself, whether at lunch over a weekend, or at one of our programs. You may find yourself falling in love with the place as much as I have. If you do, consider supporting us by becoming a member, giving us a financial gift, or volunteering your time – in the end we conserve what we love.

— Jason Meyer, Executive Director, Fenner Conservancy

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