Conserving the conservancy: Premier land organization restructures, founder takes new role

REGION – It was two years ago when the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy wrapped up an unprecedented land protection effort. Its Coastal Campaign raised $35 million to preserve more than 6,000 acres of land along Lake Michigan (Manistee and Benzie counties) that includes sand dunes, forests, farm land and more than three miles of shoreline.

"It was an enormous undertaking and it was a huge success by every measure," said Board Chair Tom Palmer. When it was over, Palmer saw an organization that was tired but energized. And he saw an opportunity.

"I became convinced this was the perfect time to pause and take a hard look at our future," Palmer said, specifically looking at how to ensure the sustainability of the land trust, whose main mission is protecting land and stewarding it into perpetuity.

Palmer "painted the big picture" on strategic direction and sustainability for the board in February and a core group of the board got things rolling. With the guidance of Dan Wolf, managing director of strategic leadership and management consultants Dewar Sloan of Traverse City, the board and the staff launched a restructuring process focused on better decision-making, setting priorities and strategic direction.

A Strong Land Trust

Becomes Stronger

The most visible change to come out of the restructuring centers on Executive Director Glen Chown. As the conservancy's first staff member hired by Rotary Charities in 1991, Chown has been at the helm for the last 17 years.

"I had to let go of being involved in every decision," Chown said.

So in September, the Conservancy promoted Megan Olds to its first ever Associate Director position, effectively splitting the executive responsibilities. It allows Chown to focus on being the visionary and further developing relationships with major donors, while Olds takes over management of the day-to-day, overseeing program development and some fundraising.

"There are always challenges in letting go," Chown said. "I have tremendous trust in Megan."

Olds said Chown's ability to take on a new role is really powerful. "It's something I admire about Glen," she said. "He saw the need and stepped into a new role gracefully. That shows trust in the process and trust in me."

There also is a lot of honesty between the two of them, Olds added, and that has helped make this transition work. "We don't always agree," she said. "It isn't always smooth, but we have the space to disagree."

That the organization chose to take a hard look at how it was operating when things were going so well is not lost on Chown.

"I am most proud that we embarked upon this restructuring while riding the wave of tremendous success following the Coastal Campaign," said Chown, rather than "resting upon our laurels and becoming content with a business-as-usual approach."

Internal Workings

Christie McGue returned to the organization to lead the staff restructuring. McGue, a former executive director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington D.C., retired to Traverse City in 2000 and started working for the Conservancy right before the Coastal Campaign but had left before the restructuring process began.

She interviewed each staff member about their workload, their understanding of the strategic goals of the organization, and their job satisfaction. She also met regularly with the management team and board and saw a lot of commonality.

The staff was clearly looking for some changes, McGue said. For one, there was a lot of confusion about the decision-making process within the organizational structure and it needed clear lines of authority. Increased efficiency was another major theme.

Also key to the staff restructuring was making sure everyone was in the right role. In the process, the scope of some jobs changed and a new management team was built.

"This is so much the right role for Megan," said McGue, "and it's the perfect role for Glen to build on the conservancy's legacy."

Olds said she views the internal culture change as the most significant shift to come out of the process. "We moved from a family organization to a more corporate business model," she said, something the staff had been asking for and a formality that was necessary with 24 full-time employees.


& Stewardship

Hand in hand with the personnel reorganization was the business of longevity – of both the organization and the land it is charged with stewarding.

Palmer said the organization needed to get more aggressive building an endowment fund that addresses sustainability issues, whether its protecting land easements, recruiting top employees or staff development. "The types of things that don't happen unless you think about it," he said.

The Coastal Campaign was the first time the Conservancy wrapped land stewardship costs into the campaign.

"Now we're thinking about sustainability with every step we take," Olds said.

Added Chown, "Sustainability is more than just having ample dollars, it's also the 'knack and craft' and the bench strength of the staff and board. We know how to save land with the best of them," acquiring more than 30,000 acres in its 17 years, including 74 miles of shoreline.

But in this economic climate, what about the strength of an organization whose main funding sources are the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, foundation grants and private donors?

"The restructuring was done at a time when we were a strong organization, in good shape financially," said Palmer. "We're much better prepared to handle the economic challenges than before. We have a better idea of what we want, how to prioritize, and we're more efficient."

Continued Palmer, "What we've done is not atypical in the business world, but it is atypical in the non-profit world," where sometimes board members are not terribly engaged in the organization's work or are reluctant to create controversy.

Was there anything controversial here? "Within the board and staff, there was some angst over the notion of separating executive responsibilities between Glen and Megan" and concern over "rocking the boat too hard," Palmer said. "That passed when no one fell off." BN