The Morton Arboretum: Suriving the Economy For 88 Years

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Business Lessons from an Arboretum

Very few nonprofit associations have their wares on continuous display as much as the Morton Arboretum does. This 88-year-old organization can teach today’s nonprofits a thing or two about doing what they’re supposed to.

Organizations need to be selective about the key activities to which they dedicate scarce resources, and all the more in a down economy. Developing a tailored roster of offerings that mesh well with, and support, the key organizational mission (networking, research, education) builds a chain of value that also benefits the members.

Many nonprofits today are moving resources away from a solid foundation and mission, to instead take on too many short-lived programs that end up sapping energy and dedication for the long term. Examples include social media teams that are pulled together overnight to participate in an already saturated market, or investments in new webinars when there are already plenty of workshops and seminars already underway—all adding strain to overstretched resources.

The Arboretum, located in Lisle, Illinois has developed a smoothly running process and seasonal calendar of programs to serve its 800,000 annual visitors. The arboretum’s programs today pursue the same “Plant Trees” philosophy of the Morton family.

The arboretum offers a variety of successful programs in addition to their most visible attribute: the trees. Much of the arboretum’s programming revolves around scientific research through the library and conservation work; educational programs aimed at children, academics, and adults; the maintenance of the grounds via plant conservation and collection; and via membership offerings such as special events, discounts, and educational materials (the Seasons publication).

It takes a lot of planning to manage a framework of over a thousand volunteers. A strong corporate culture and a solid unified workforce underlie smoothly running programs and, hopefully, a consistent profit stream from renewing and satisfied members.

These areas have spun off through the years from the original intent by Mr. Joy Morton: the living plant collections, a research library, and a herbarium—striking the optimal balance between enhancing and elevating the core mission.

However, the Arboretum would not be able to offer such a diverse roster of services and programs if it weren’t for the high caliber and dedication of its volunteers and employees. Volunteer training is one of the most important administrative tasks that a nonprofit organization needs to tackle well. Because of the arboretum’s few resources, its strong policy of efficiency is exemplified in the management of their volunteer program.

Ann Gerling, a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum’s visitor center help desk, says the organization counts on just over a thousand volunteers in various service areas (indoors or outdoors). Once volunteer interests and skill levels are matched to opportunities, they are trained and provided continued development. “All the volunteers are not full time, of course. There’s so many! I, for example, come every other Tuesday and Thursday.” Gerling has served at the Arboretum for several years and enjoys helping members, visitors, and fellow volunteers discover new areas to explore on the expansive grounds.

The arboretum takes seriously the interaction with prospects at each possible opportunity—starting with their volunteers and employees. The arboretum features a yearlong open call for volunteers for all aspects of the arboretum’s operations—also opening excellent internship opportunities in plant research.

Not many nonprofits have volunteer applications that are as detailed as the Arboretum’s. The volunteer application form speaks volumes of the corporate culture. It’s two pages long, and the background section includes room for two references and a skill sets list to prove the potential value of the volunteer.

Not many companies require as detailed a laundry list of skill sets, interests, and values as the arboretum’s volunteer form—imagine how much better “decisions by committee” would run in nonprofits if only all associations selected committee members through review rather than recommendation.

Although there may be other 88-year-old (or older) nonprofit organizations in Chicago, they may have fallen victim to economic hardships due to the downturn. The arboretum has been able to keep its head above water without major cuts or downsizing. It’s important to understand the value of a strong foundational culture and the impact it has when developing programs. The culture at the arboretum encompasses programs on sustainability and conservation for its extensive grounds and collections of plants, but it also incorporates these concepts into its management practices.

The Morton Arboretum has learned a thing or two about staying afloat while expanding its offerings. Nonprofits can also strengthen and highlight their educational goals by keeping an eye on what they do well, and turning it into something exceptional.

Photos I've taken at the Morton Arboretum can be viewed on my Flickr account.