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Glen adjusts course of events

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For the past 36 years or so, the annual Glen Helen pancake breakfast has been a spring fundraising tradition for the nature preserve. While the breakfast typically brings as many as 300 people to the Outdoor Education Center cafeteria for food, music and nature hikes, the event is one of several that Glen leaders are evaluating this year in order to streamline their activities and align with the overall mission of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute as an educational nature preserve and a resource of Antioch College.

However, the event, usually held in March, has been cancelled for this year, and its future is being considered as part of a wider effort by Glen leaders to identify which fund-raisers are most important and effective for the Glen’s small staff and group of volunteers.

According to GHEI Executive Director Nick Boutis, the breakfast has been a fun event with “great music and camaraderie with a really nice vibe to it.” While the breakfast attracts a large number of people and families to the Glen and generates a modest amount of revenue for the preserve, it also requires at least 20 staff and volunteers at a busy time of year and has been difficult to pull together without a clear leader to step up and organize it, he said.

The Glen schedules dozens of events each month, some of them fundraisers like the pancake breakfast, that all serve to support the Glen by bringing in people, raising environmental awareness and raising money to maintain the preserve. This month alone, the schedule includes 25 events such as bird and plant hikes, star gazing, public lectures, after school naturalist activities and habitat restoration work sessions. Each of the events depends on a certain level of staff and volunteer involvement, and Boutis wants to be certain that the collective need to do it all doesn’t overwhelm the finite number of staff and volunteers who do a huge amount of work all year long to support the operations of the Glen.

“In the simplest terms, the Glen thrives on individual contributions and volunteer efforts, and we want to make sure we’re not exhausting our volunteer base by creating organizational busy-ness but not doing all that’s needed to make sure the Glen is thriving,” Boutis said last week.

The pancake breakfast, along with dozens of other events and efforts in the Glen, is organized by the Glen Helen Association, an independent nonprofit group that provides financial and volunteer support to the GHEI. While Boutis is an ex-officio member of the GHA board and is intimately involved with the group’s activities, the GHA is essentially an organization that represents the community and makes its own decisions about how to spend its budget, according to GHA board secretary Bill Kent. The GHA provides about 10 percent of the Glen’s overall budget, and was instrumental in providing about $100,000 in matching funds for the $1 million in federal grants the Glen received last year for the major upgrades to its facilities and trails, Kent said.

The GHA board also recognizes the need to make the operations of the Glen as effective as possible, including reassessing the value and benefit of its events and activities, according to GHA board president Dan Halm last week. The community events are important, but the Glen also operates educational programs for 3,000 school children each year and manages the physical space, including three dozen buildings and 1,000 acres of land with many miles of trails to maintain. With that much responsibility, an organization as small as the Glen must choose wisely where to put its energy, Halm said.

“There are so many things to do there’s no way we could possibly cover them all. It’s going to be a constant struggle to find the right balance,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed and dump on [the Glen staff].”

The Glen has grown significantly over the past six years, since Boutis was hired by Antioch University to direct its operation. In 2006, the Glen was nearly self sustaining with an annual operating budget of about $600,000 and a staff of about 10 full and part-time employees. Now the Glen has a $1 million annual budget with 14 full and part-time employees, an Outdoor Education Center naturalist staff of 13 and five Antioch College student workers.

“The Glen has more paid staff now than when it started, but that means more expectation,” Halm said.

With the reopening of Antioch College after two years of closure, the mission of the Glen has grown too, as the college has reinstituted a formerly held educational tie between the Glen and the college curriculum. The renewed educational focus brings the need to streamline activities into even greater focus, Boutis said.

“On any given day we need to be really open-minded to what we’re providing to the community by asking ourselves what people want and what we feel are the most important ecological messages to impart,” he said.

One thing the Glen has chosen to focus on this year is the biggest effort in the history of the preserve to restore the native species of the riparian zone on either side of the Little Miami River in the South Glen. Beginning this spring the Glen will bring on two temporary employees to work with land manager George Bieri and volunteers (for an estimated 5,000 hours of labor) to remove honeysuckle, garlic mustard and other invasives along 3.5 miles of the river. The effort, funded by a $70,000 Nature Conservancy grant, will be part of the Glen’s mission to record the biological change along the river and educate the public about the process and value of supporting the natural ecology of the region, Boutis said. The effort is also integral to the Glen’s mission to protect and encourage others to protect the preserve and other natural spaces, he said.

The Glen also plans to maintain several newer events that have received significant support from both organizers and participants. The Earth Day event finally became a reality last year, including a 5K run for adults and kids, a Raptor Center release and open house, and naturalist programs. While the event took a lot of volunteers to organize, it also generated $10,000 from sponsorships, registration fees and grants, and featured an educational component with naturalists operating discovery stations for children and families at the Outdoor Education Center all day long.

“That’s the kind of thing we want to see more of ­— it had a focus on environmental education and community participation, and it gives families a reason to get out to the Glen,” Boutis said.

Whoo Cooks for You, the local food dinner prepared by regional chefs, has become another successful event that raises over $10,000 for the Glen and emphasizes the importance of eating food from local growers. The Glen’s annual birding day each May also involves getting people out in the Glen and generates about $15,000 for operations. In addition, Boutis hopes to promote the new license plate program that allows residents to purchase plates with a Glen theme through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and donate part of the proceeds to the Glen. The program serves to raise both awareness and funds for the Glen, which must sell a minimum of 500 plates per year to continue and will require a promotional effort, Boutis said.

Ultimately, in order to reduce the need for multiple fundraising efforts every year, the Glen needs to grow its endowment, which at $1.5 million currently provides about 7 percent of the annual operating expenses but is about one-tenth of what peer organizations have, Boutis said.

While these new efforts are forthcoming, the Glen will likely maintain a good deal of traditional events that, while not necessarily generating a ton of money for the preserve, have a valuable mission and adequate support from the community. The Great Stuff Garage Sale, for instance, is organized by Suzanne Patterson and not only facilitates recycling but also reminds people of the importance of reusing materials and helping to reduce pressure on landfills.

Patterson, the former GHA treasurer who has been heavily involved in many Glen activities over the years, is the kind of community member that helps make the Glen a healthy organization, Boutis said.

“Her role has been just pivotal in the success of the events that we’ve had,” Boutis said. “Every organization hopes for people like Suzanne, people who are passionate, committed and competent, and when they see something on the verge of falling through the cracks, they come in and make it better than it would have been.”

Some of the activities in the Glen have been ongoing for so long they have become a kind of tradition. But some of the traditions aren’t as well supported as they once were, and can sometimes become a drain when there’s no one to lead them, according to Kent. He is coordinating an effort with a Wright State University archivist to comb through and file 60 years of historical records the Glen has amassed. Through his reading, Kent has seen evidence of the evolution of the Glen’s organizational structure and the strengths and weaknesses of being owned by an educational institution, while maintaining financial self-sufficiency and heavy dependence on a volunteer community. It’s a complicated organization that necessitates simplicity and efficiency wherever it can be achieved, he said, especially regarding events that are meant to support the Glen, not become a burden on it.

“With some of the things we’ve been doing, it’s like pulling teeth to make it happen, especially if we don’t have one person to pull it all together,” he said. “We’re exploring ways to make this whole operation work more efficiently.”

The GHA board will meet later this month to further discuss the future direction of its events. And while he wants to be mindful of how much activity is reasonable for an organization of this size, Boutis is very clear that the Glen has and does benefit enormously from the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers who work tirelessly for the Glen Helen they care for with a passion.

“We’re doing our best to be respectful and honor all the efforts that have gone before us,” he said. “But we also want to bring a sobering, critical look at the organization to ensure that it stays healthy in order to sustain not just the environment but also ourselves.”

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